Brussels: A fugitive suspect in the November 13 Paris attacks was arrested in Belgium today, French police officials said, after a raid Belgian authorities said was linked to the deadly March 22 Brussels bombings.
The suspect, Mohamed Abrini, is believed to be the mysterious “man in the hat” who escaped the double bombing at the Zaventem airport, according to French officials.
If true, that would mean Abrini had a key role in both attacks carried out by the Islamic State cell that left a total of 162 people dead 130 in Paris and 32 in Brussels.
The two officials spoke on condition of anonymity to offer details about the ongoing Belgian investigation, which has also involved French anti-terror police. Today’s arrest of at least two people came a day after Belgium released photos and video of the airport suspect.
The Belgian federal prosecutor’s office confirmed “several arrests” but refused to provide more information. Five hours after the initial detentions, authorities were still carrying out a raid in the same Anderlecht area of Brussels.
The government and top security officials gathered in a national security council meeting in the wake of today’s detention to assess the consequences of the operation.
Abrini was the last identified suspect still at large from the November 13 attacks in Paris which killed 130 people, although his precise role has never been clear. He is a 31-year-old Belgian-Moroccan petty criminal believed to have travelled early last summer to Syria where his younger brother died in 2014 in the Islamic State group’s notorious francophone brigade.
He has not resurfaced since the emergence of surveillance video placing him in the convoy with the attackers headed to Paris. He had ties to Abdelhamid Abbaoud, the ringleader of the Paris attacks who died in a police standoff on November 18, and is a childhood friend of brothers Salah and Brahim Abdeslam.
He went multiple times to Birmingham, England, last year, meeting with several men suspected of terrorist activity, a European security official has told The Associated Press.
The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to provide details on the investigation. He said the meetings, including one later last summer, took place in several locations, including cafes and apartments.
He was travelling with Salah Abdeslam, who is in jail in Belgium for involvement in the Paris attacks, in the convoy headed to Paris in the 36 hours leading up to the attacks.
The man in the hat was with the two suicide bombers who killed 16 people at Brussels airport on March 22. A second arrest could also be linked to the Maelbeek subway bombing that killed another 16 people during rush hour that morning.
Yesterday, authorities released photos and video of a man wearing a dark hat, leaving the airport on foot, walking to the nearby town of Zaventem and then into Brussels, where all traces of him were reportedly lost.