The Brussels-based DAESH extremists behind the Paris attacks had planned a fresh strike in France but targeted the Belgian capital instead when police closed in, a Belgian federal prosecutor said yesterday.
The prosecutor announced that so-called "man in the hat" Mohamed Abrini was charged with "terrorist murders" over the attacks in Brussels last month.
Suicide bombers killed 32 at Brussels airport and a metro station on March 22, but left a trail for police leading directly to the November Paris attacks which killed 130 people. "Numerous elements in the investigation have shown that the terrorist group initially had the intention to strike in France again," read a statement the Belgian federal prosecutor's office.
The prosecutor gave no further details, but the Brussels onslaught followed the March 18 arrest of top Paris attacks suspect Salah Abdeslam, after four months on the run.
The prosecutor also gave no details of the planned attack in France, but late last month, French police arrested Reda Kriket near Paris, finding weapons and explosives in a flat he had used, suggesting he was planning an attack of "extreme violence."
Belgium has arrested two suspects, identified as Abderrahmane A. and Rabah M, in connection with the Kriket case, and on Thursday both were remanded in custody, along with three other suspects held in connection with the November Paris attacks.
In Sunday's statement, the Belgian prosecutor said Abrini, the man seen in CCTV footage with the two suicide bombers at Brussels airport, was charged with "terrorist murders." "The investigating judge specialized in terrorism cases has put Mohamed Abrini in detention in connection with the investigation into the Brussels and Zaventem (airport) attacks," said the statement. "He is charged with participation in the activities of a terrorist group, terrorist murders and attempts to commit terrorist murders."
On Saturday, the judge leading the Belgian investigation into the Paris carnage laid the same charges against Abrini, who was arrested on Friday. The 31-year-old Belgian of Moroccan origin confessed to being "the man in the hat" who calmly walked away from the devastated departure hall, the prosecutor said Saturday. He then returned on foot to central Brussels, discarding his hat and coat on the way before disappearing into thin air, as the police launched a fresh appeal to the public for help.
Abrini was a long-time petty criminal who grew up with Abdeslam in Belgium's troubled Molenbeek area, home to several other suspects who share similar stories of getting on the wrong side of the law and becoming radicalized.
The Belgian authorities have faced intense criticism over their handling of the Brussels attacks and the investigation, especially as it has emerged that many of the suspects were known to the police.
Critics say the government has not done enough to prevent extremists targeting Muslim youth in areas such as Molenbeek, with Belgians over-represented among foreign fighters going to Syria to join DAESH. Abdeslam, whose brother Brahim blew himself up in Paris, was seen driving to the French capital with Abrini shortly before the attacks, but he apparently balked at the same mission and fled back to Brussels. Police finally arrested him not far from the family home in Molenbeek. Abdeslam is now awaiting extradition to France.
There has been much recrimination in Belgium about how he and the others were able to remain free for so long, with two ministers offering to resign. Belgian authorities also face serious questions about possible lapses in security in the wake of Tuesday's terrorist attacks in Brussels, as reports surfaced indicating that Turkey had warned Belgium about one of the attackers, and two additional suspects are on the United States terror watch list.