Police pursuit may have rushed Brussels bombers
Brussels – — As police hunted for the surviving Brussels bomber, evidence mounted Wednesday that the same Islamic State cell carried out the attacks in both Paris and Brussels, and that the militants may have launched this week’s slaughter in haste because they feared authorities were closing in on them.
On a day of mourning across Belgium following Tuesday’s bombings of the Brussels airport and subway that killed 31 people and wounded more than 270, new information emerged about the four attackers:
■ European security officials said one of the suicide bombers was Najim Laachraoui, a Moroccan-born Belgian whom police have hunted as the suspected bombmaker in the Nov. 13 attacks on Paris by the Islamic State that killed 130 people.
■The other two suicide bombers were Belgian-born brothers, Ibrahim El Bakraoui, and his younger brother, Khalid, both known to the police as common criminals, not anti-Western radicals.
■ Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Ibrahim El Bakraoui was caught in June 2015 near Turkey’s border with Syria and deported, at his own request, to the Netherlands, with Ankara warning Dutch and Belgian officials that he was a “foreign terrorist fighter.” But other Turkish officials said he was released from Dutch custody due to lack of evidence of involvement in extremism.
Details of the investigation from chief prosecutor Frederic Van Leeuw pointed to a rising sense of panic among the three bombers who blew themselves up. An unidentified fourth man who was shown in airport video surveillance footage remains at large after Van Leeuw said his suitcase bomb failed to detonate properly. Authorities say he was the man in a light jacket and hat on the far right of the video footage.
Van Leeuw said the bomb did partially explode after police had already evacuated the terminal, injuring nobody.
The prosecutor said a laptop seized from a garbage can on a street outside the brothers’ last known address contained a message purportedly from Ibrahim El Bakraoui that indicated he was expecting to be arrested imminently following Friday’s capture in Brussels of the suspected ringleader of the Paris attacks, Salah Abdeslam.
“I don’t know what to do, I’m in a hurry, people are looking for me everywhere,” Van Leeuw quoted the message as saying. “If I give myself up I’ll end up in a cell next to him,” — an apparent reference to the just-arrested Abdeslam.
Police were drawn to the brothers’ apartment Tuesday night thanks to a tip from a taxi driver who had unwittingly delivered them to the airport, Van Leeuw said. Inside the northeast Brussels residence they found an apparent bomb-making factory, including 33 pounds of homemade explosives and nails for use as shrapnel.
Neighbors told the Associated Press they had no idea of the brothers’ activities and barely saw them until the taxi collected them and their visibly heavy bags Tuesday morning.