Intelligence officials said Wednesday that a 25-year-old Islamic State bombmaker who was involved in the Paris attacks in November was one of two suicide bombers who targeted the Brussels airport this week.
Authorities said Najim Laachraoui, who was born in Morocco but grew up in Brussels, was identified as a key participant in the Paris attacks after his DNA was found on suicide vests used in the operation. His DNA was also found Tuesday at an apartment in Brussels where authorities think bombs were constructed.
Meanwhile, a second man identified as a suicide bomber in Tuesday’s Brussels attacks had been detained by Turkey and deported but was released by European authorities about eight months ago, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Wednesday.
Erdogan said his government warned authorities in Belgium about Ibrahim el-Bakraoui, who was stopped in southern Turkey near the Gaziantep border crossing into Syria. The Turkish president said el-Bakraoui was deported last July but was then subsequently released, “despite our warnings that this person was a foreign terrorist fighter.”
Erdogan said those holding el-Bakraoui after he was deported “could not establish any links with terrorism,” so they released the 29-year-old Belgian national.
Authorities in Brussels, where the victims of the attacks were honored with a minute of silence Wednesday, confirmed that el-Bakraoui detonated explosives and was killed Tuesday at the capital’s main airport. His brother, Khalid, 27, blew himself up aboard a metro train in Brussels about the same time. They were identified by their fingerprints.
A fourth man seen on surveillance video with the two bombers at the airport remains at large.
IS extremists claimed responsibility for the attacks, which killed at least 31 people and wounded 271.
Links with Paris attacks
With the confirmation that Paris bombmaker Laachraoui took part in the Brussels attacks, authorities are adding to evidence showing the ties between the two operations.
Citing police sources, Belgian public broadcaster RTBF reported that Khalid el-Bakraoui had rented the Brussels apartment raided by French and Belgian police last week in connection with the Paris attacks.
Police also found the fingerprint there of top Paris attacks suspect Salah Abdeslam, who was arrested Friday.
Authorities believe the Paris attacks were at least partly plotted in Belgium.
“France and Belgium are united more than ever in their sadness and determination,” Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel told reporters, alongside his French counterpart, Manuel Valls.
Both countries are also worried about the growing number of their youngsters turning to militant Islam. While some are converts, many others are disaffected second-generation immigrants from North and sub-Saharan Africa.
Moment of silence
During the silent memorial in Brussels Wednesday, the Place de la Bourse was filled with people bundled against the spring chill and dark skies. The public square is the site where mourners have been bringing flowers and mementos to remember the victims.
Much of the city remains locked down. The airport is closed at least through Friday; a statement said “the forensic investigation is still underway.”
“Until we can assess the damage, we are unable to confirm when operations at the airport can be resumed,” authorities added.
Belgium’s terror alert is at maximum level. Authorities throughout Europe have boosted security at airports and other public spaces in response to the Brussels attacks, and a friendly soccer match set for next week between Belgium and Portugal has been moved from Brussels to the Portuguese city of Leiria as a precaution.
President Barack Obama, who is on a trip to Argentina, on Wednesday expressed his “extraordinary sorrow” to Belgium, saying the U.S. had also felt the “scourge of terrorism.”
“The U.S. will continue to offer any assistance we can to help investigate these attacks and bring the attackers to justice,” Obama said at a news conference alongside Argentina’s president, Mauricio Macri. “We will also continue to go after ISIL [another Islamic State acronym] aggressively until it is removed from Syria and Iraq and finally destroyed.”
About a dozen U.S. citizens were injured in the attacks, the U.S. State Department said Wednesday.