After a series of embarrassing failures, Belgian authorities announced apparent progress today in their efforts to unravel a web of interconnected terrorist plots and said they may have found the most-wanted remaining suspect in Tuesday’s devastating suicide bomb attacks.
The arrest, if confirmed, could help to ease some of the jitters in a city that remained palpably on edge as organizers were forced to call off a planned solidarity rally because authorities acknowledged they could not secure the site.
Since the bombings, which killed 31 people and ripped apart an airport and a subway car, police have been hunting nationwide for “the man in white” – a figure dressed in a white jacket and black hat who appeared on surveillance footage alongside two others who would blow themselves up minutes later.
Authorities said today that they are investigating the possibility that the man, who is thought to have deposited a piece of explosives-laden luggage in the departures hall and then fled, may already be in custody.
The arrested man, identified by a European official as Fayçal Cheffou, appeared before a judge after he was detained Thursday night while sitting in a car in front of the Belgian prosecutor’s office. He was charged with “participation in the activities of a terrorist group, terrorist murders and attempted terrorist murders.”
A spokesman for the federal prosecutor’s office, Eric Van der Sypt, confirmed that the man identified by his office only as Fayçal C. was being investigated as the possible third airport attacker. But he said the link “cannot be confirmed yet.”
“We have to be 100 percent sure,” he said. “These are very heavy charges.”
Belgium’s Le Soir newspaper reported that Cheffou was the man in the video, citing an unidentified source who said that a taxi driver who took the attackers to the airport the morning of the attack positively identified him.
Belgian media reported that Cheffou has in the past identified himself as “an independent journalist” with a history of advocacy on behalf of radical Islamist causes. He was reportedly once arrested for trying to recruit refugees in a public park and later received an order to stay away.
The website of Flanders News posted a video that it said featured Cheffou reporting in front of an asylum center, where he tells viewers that mealtimes for detainees were not altered to account for Ramadan, when Muslims must fast during daylight hours. “This goes against human rights,” he says in the video.
Unlike the other two airport bombers, the third man’s bag never detonated. The first two wore black gloves on their left hands that authorities believe concealed the detonators. The third man did not wear gloves.
The prosecutor’s announcement comes just a day after investigators revealed that they may have missed a crucial opportunity to disrupt plans for the Tuesday killings. In the days before the attacks, investigators were questioning Salah Adbdeslam, the last living direct participant in November’s Paris terrorist attacks. He had been arrested in Brussels only four days before the Belgium attackers struck.
But the investigators focused their inquiries on the Paris attacks, and on the procedures for extradition, rather than press him on plans for future strikes.
French newspaper Le Monde published in Saturday’s edition what it claimed were excerpts from a transcript of prosecutors’ questioning of Abdeslam. At one point, they show him photos of the two brothers who days later would attack the Brussels airport and subway, Ibrahim and Khalid el-Bakraoui.
“I did not know them,” Abdeslam replies, according to Le Monde. The prosecutors move on, even though they had already uncovered Abdeslam’s fingerprints in an apartment rented by Khalid el-Bakraoui.
In addition to Cheffou, two others were also charged with terrorism-related offenses on Saturday, though they were not directly linked to Tuesday’s attack.
Prosecutors said they charged a man identified as “Rabah N.” with “participating in the activities of a terrorist group,” in connection with a Thursday raid in the Paris suburb of Argenteuil that French leaders say foiled an imminent attack on France.
Also connected to that plot is a man who was detained in a raid in Brussels on Friday, Abderrahman Ameroud, several Belgian media outlets reported, citing unnamed police sources. Ameroud, an Algerian, was sentenced in 2005 in France to seven years in prison for recruiting jihadists to fight in Afghanistan as part of a case tied to the 2001 assassination of anti-Taliban leader Ahmed Shah Massoud.
Another man, identified as “Aboubakar A.,” was arrested and charged Saturday with a terrorism-related offense. But prosecutors did not specify whether he was involved with one of the known plots.
The flurry of arrests and charges came as airport authorities said Saturday that investigators had finished work at the scene and that workers had begun the process of repairing the badly damaged facility. The airport will be at least partially reopened – but not before Tuesday, exactly a week after the attackers struck.
Much of normal life in Brussels has resumed, with the metro system reopening just a day after the attacks and the streets once again clogged with pedestrians and traffic. But there are also signs of continuing fears.
Belgian Interior Minister Jan Jambon on Saturday appealed to residents not to attend a solidarity rally that had been planned for Sunday, saying that police are stretched to thin by their investigation to properly secure the site of the march.
The march had been planned for the plaza in front of the city’s historic stock exchange building, the scene of a continuous vigil since Tuesday’s attacks. On Saturday, hundreds of people were gathered there to sing, write chalk messages and reflect as camouflage-clad soldiers cradling assault rifles paced nearby.
“We understand fully the emotions,” Jambon said. “We understand that everyone wants to express these feelings.”
But Brussels Mayor Yvan Mayeur said that given the number of investigations underway, the rally should be postponed – and organizers agreed.
“Let us allow the security services to do their work and the march, which we too want to take part in, be delayed for several weeks,” Mayeur said at a news conference with Jambon at the national crisis center.
The announcement represented a striking admission by authorities that they are overwhelmed by the difficulty of piecing together information about homegrown jihadist networks that are far more extensive than previously thought.
(c) 2016, The Washington Post · Griff Witte, Michael Birnbaum