Each new revelation about Tuesday’s suicide bomb attacks in Brussels indicates that investigators are fighting the biggest jihadi cell that has ever come to light in Europe.
Over several days of raids, Belgian prosecutors have been uncovering a web of interconnected people and safe houses that seem to tie the Brussels bombings to last year’s assault on Paris and several other attacks.
Louis Caprioli, a former French intelligence counter-terrorism chief, said this was “the first time” that a network of this scale had emerged.
Some security officials had hoped that the death of Abdelhamid Abaaoud, a Belgian killed in a hail of bullets and grenade shrapnel days after the Paris attacks, would decapitate the network. Instead, it appears that it quickly regrouped, with deadly results.
Haras Rafiq, who has advised the UK government on combating radicalisation and heads Quilliam, a counter-extremism group, said: “It’s very easy for us to think there’s one spider in the centre of the web. It doesn’t work like that. Abaaoud was a key operational figure but before cells are operational there’s lots of recruiting and logistics that need to be done. I’m not convinced he did it alone.”
Manuel Valls, France’s prime minister, said on a visit to Brussels that at least 30 people had links to the Paris attacks, 11 of whom were dead and 12 were detained. The rest were “being sought”.
As recently as last week the extent of contact and co-ordination between the authors of a string of terrorist attacks in western Europe over the past two years was unclear. But the evidence is now rapidly mounting that some, if not all of them, were part of one super-cell.
The hunt for the members of that wider team — and its potential commanders — has now revealed the full significance of a car trip to Budapest last year, involving three of Europe’s most prominent suspected terrorists.
Pulling up in their rented Mercedes at an Austrian border crossing on September 9, their papers were checked and they were allowed to carry on their way to Budapest.
Among those in the vehicle was Salah Abdeslam, who only two months later would be the only known survivor among the Paris attackers, who together murdered 130 people. Security forces now believe that the other two occupants of the vehicle were Mohamed Belkaid, a 36-year-old Algerian, and Najim Laachraoui, suspected by some to be the cell’s highly valued expert bombmaker. Both were travelling under false names using fake Belgian identity papers.
The trio grabbed headlines over the last two weeks, after the manhunt for Mr Abdeslam turned hot on Tuesday last week. Police raided a house in the Brussels neighbourhood of Forest and Belkaid was killed in the ensuing firefight. It emerged that he had wired money to Abaaoud shortly before the fatal showdown in the ringleader’s north Paris hideout.
Belkaid’s age — among young men usually in their 20s — has caused speculation among terrorism experts that he could have had a senior role in the group.
Mr Abdeslam, who had fled to another safe house, was captured on Friday, but the Belgian government immediately warned against triumphalism and cautioned that there were signs he and his network were amassing materials for another attack. The police issued a wanted notice for Mr Laachraoui on Monday.
On Wednesday evening, Mr Laachraoui was identified by his DNA as one of two suicide bombers who struck Brussels airport, according to Belgian media citing police sources.
Investigators are still trying to identify a third airport attacker — the “man in white” pictured on CCTV — who is still at large.
In a further link between the French and Belgian cells, Mr Laachraoui’s DNA was discovered at two houses in Belgium — in the provincial town of Auvelais and in the Brussels district of Schaerbeek — that were used by the Paris attackers during preparations for their November assault. Suicide vests used in the Paris attacks also bore his DNA.
The three travellers in that Budapest-bound Mercedes are also linked to Tuesday’s bombings in Brussels — further evidence of a jihadi super-cell.
The Belgian broadcaster RTBF has cited intelligence from the police linking the Forest safe house where Belkaid was killed last week to Khalid El Bakraoui, the suicide bomber who killed about 20 people in a Brussels metro station on Tuesday. His brother Ibrahim blew himself up in the city’s airport.
Khalid is also reported to have rented a flat in Charleroi, southern Belgium, which was used by some of the Paris attackers in the run-up to their assault.
Beyond the ties between the Paris and Brussels attacks, Abaaoud was a link between several other high profile incidents. His cell was responsible for a thwarted attack against Belgian police stations in January 2015. And the men killed in that operation were linked by security services to a botched attack on the Thalys international train service in August last year, as well as a shooting at the Jewish Museum of Brussels in may 2014.
Mr Caprioli, the former counter-terrorism chief, said the question now was whether Abaaoud had been the “unifying element” in the network, or whether the interconnections between the jihadis stemmed from their shared backgrounds in tough quarters of the French and Belgian capitals.