Islamic State threat in Europe 'more urgent' than feared, security chief warns
BRUSSELS — A top European security official warned Thursday that the threat of Islamic State attacks is greater than previous assessments, underscoring calls for greater security steps even as police widened the hunt for accomplices in the Brussels blasts.
Rob Wainwright, chief of Europol, said that the terrorist group has adopted a “more aggressive” posture toward Europe, and that security authorities were focused on some 5,000 suspects who had become radicalized in Europe and traveled to Syria to fight. Many have now returned.
“We are faced by a more dangerous, a more urgent security threat from so-called Islamic State,” Wainwright told the BBC on Thursday. “It threatens not just France and Belgium but a number of European countries at the same time . . . It is certainly the most serious threat we have faced in at least a decade.”
Wainwright’s comments came before European security chiefs were expected to hold an emergency session in shattered Brussels. European leaders have been criticized for not acting more quickly to integrate security strategies, and they will be under pressure Thursday to produce results.
Meanwhile, police pressed ahead with a manhunt for a suspected accomplice who is believed to have fled Tuesday’s attack at the Brussels airport.
The French newspaper Le Monde and the Belgian broadcaster RTBF reported that video monitors had captured images of another possible accomplice, who is believed to slipped away on Brussels subway. The report could not be immediately confirmed.
Authorities also suggest that the Brussels attackers — two of them brothers — were spurred into action as security crackdowns and raids closed in.
Days before the attacks, counterterrorism police had raided their Brussels safe houses. An ally who took part in November’s Paris carnage was shot and captured by authorities. And Ibrahim el-Bakraoui, a 29-year-old Belgian with a thick rap sheet, wrote that he did not want to wind up in a prison cell, Belgian federal prosecutor Frederic Van Leeuw said Wednesday.
Bakraoui and his younger brother, Khalid, were among the three suicide bombers in the back-to-back strikes: tearing apart a Brussels subway car and shattering the city’s main airport terminal. At least 31 people were killed and 300 injured in the bloodiest attack on Belgian soil since World War II.
Bakraoui detonated a suitcase full of nails, screws and powerful explosives at the airport, killing himself in the process, Van Leeuw said. So did Islamic State bombmaker Najim Laachraoui, 24, who is also believed to have prepared explosives for the Paris attacks, according to an Arab intelligence official and a European intelligence official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.
An unidentified man who left an even larger suitcase of explosives at the airport is believed to still be at large, he said. That suitcase did not immediately detonate, sparing Belgium even more casualties.
Laachraoui’s involvement draws the boldest line yet between the Paris attacks and those in Brussels. His DNA was found on explosives in the Paris attacks, and authorities believe that he was versed in assembling powerful explosives from ingredients readily available. His participation in two attacks suggests that the Islamic State is increasingly able to strike on European soil — although his death may also mean that he feared imminent capture by European authorities.
Terrorism experts regard bombmakers, especially those trained in handling sensitive explosives, as among the most valuable and protected members of a terrorist organization. It is highly unusual for them to participate in suicide attacks themselves.
Laachraoui’s DNA was found in a Brussels apartment raided last week. The discovery of a militant cell there eventually led to the arrest of Salah Abdeslam last Friday. Abdeslam is believed to have been the logistics mastermind for the Paris massacres, which claimed 130 lives.
After a court hearing Thursday, Abdeslam’s lawyer, Sven Mary, said the suspected militant is not fighting extradition to France.
The computer file that Brussels prosecutors cited Wednesday does not mention Abdeslam by name, but it says the attackers feared that if they did not strike quickly, they risked winding up in prison alongside “him.”
“If they drag on, they risk finishing next to him in a cell,” Van Leeuw said, paraphrasing the contents of the file.
Van Leeuw described the file as a “will” discovered on a computer. He did not explain why authorities believed the computer belonged to Bakraoui.
Bakraoui’s brother, 27-year-old Khalid, is believed to have been the suicide bomber on a Brussels subway car that blew up as it sped out of a station underneath the heart of the European Union quarter of Brussels, an area packed with embassies and international organizations. That attack came 73 minutes after the one at the airport, meaning that commuters were already reading the news of the first explosions when the carnage reached them.
Khalid el-Bakraoui appears to have been a kind of surreptitious real estate broker for the plotters, according to a European security official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the case. Using assumed names, he rented an apartment in the Forest area of Brussels where Abdeslam’s fingerprints were found and an apartment near Charleroi, Belgium, where Paris attack mastermind Abdelhamid Abaaoud stayed as he plotted the violence.
Both Bakraoui brothers served prison time for violent crime, the European security official said. The announcement on Wednesday that two of the attackers were brothers highlighted another emerging tactic from the militant group: They would be the third pair of brothers involved in an Islamic State attack in Europe in the past 15 months.
Van Leeuw, the Belgian prosecutor, said the brothers had not previously been suspected of ties to terrorism.
But Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Wednesday that Turkey had deported the elder Bakraoui to Europe in July and warned European counterterrorism officials that it believed the man was a militant, suggesting a serious lapse by Belgian authorities.
The Reuters news agency, citing another Turkish government official, said Bakraoui was deported again in August after arriving in Antalya on Turkey’s Mediterranean coast.
A photo, released to Turkish media Thursday, showed a police mug shot of Bakraoui — smiling and unshaven, wearing a dark T-shirt — prior to his deportation to the Netherlands in July.
There were signs that an even bigger attack had been forestalled. Authorities found large stockpiles of bomb-building materials at Ibrahim el-Bakraoui’s apartment in the Schaerbeek area of Brussels, the prosecutor said: 33 pounds of TATP explosives, nearly 40 gallons of acetone, 8 gallons of hydrogen peroxide, detonators, and a suitcase full of nails and screws. Both acetone and hydrogen peroxide are easily obtainable; together they can be used to make potent explosives.
Secretary of State John F. Kerry plans to visit Brussels on Friday.
Brian Murphy in Washington contributed to this report.
This article was written by Michael Birnbaum;Souad Mekhennet;Griff Witte from The Washington Post and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.