PARIS, April 22, (Agencies): Najim Laachraoui, one of the Brussels airport bombers, has been identified by several Frenchmen held hostage by Islamic State in Syria as one of their prison guards, sources close to the investigation said Friday. According to one of the sources, four French journalists kidnapped and held in Syria from 2013 to 2014 had identified a guard known as “Abou Idriss”. One of the journalists, Nicolas Henin, “has formally identified” Abou Idriss as being Najim Laachraoui, his lawyer Marie-Laure Ingouf said, confi rming reports in French newspapers. Belgian prosecutors have said Laachraoui travelled to Syria in February 2013 to join up with IS forces.
There was no further trace of the Belgian national until he was registered under a false name at the border between Austria and Hungary in September 2015. Laachraoui, 24, was one of the two suicide bombers who struck Brussels airport on March 22, while a third attacker blew himself up at on a metro train, with the two attacks killing 32 people.
Prosecutors have also linked him to November’s attacks in Paris in which 130 people died, saying his DNA was found on a suicide vest and a piece of cloth at the Bataclan concert hall where 90 people were killed. Police also found his DNA on explosives used at the Stade de France, leading investigators to believe he was the bomb maker in both the French and Belgian attacks. Islamic State itself has also identified Laachraoui as Abou Idriss in the latest edition of its magazine, Dabiq, saying he “prepared the explosives for the two raids in Paris and Brussels”. The former French hostages have already identified two Frenchmen as being among their jailers when they were held in Syria.
One, Mehdi Nemmouche, is in custody accused of killing four people in an attack on the Jewish museum in Brussels in 2014. The other is Salim Benghalem, who has been sentenced in absentia in France for recruiting for IS and is listed as a “foreign terrorist combatant” by the United States.
Meanwhile, there are still major gaps in intelligence sharing on Islamic State fighters returning to Europe in the wake of the Brussels and Paris attacks, the EU’s anti-terrorism coordinator warned Thursday. The report by Gilles de Kerchove to interior ministers meeting in Luxembourg comes after repeated calls by European Union leaders for greater cooperation in dealing with jihadists returning from Syria and Iraq. “There are still significant gaps with regard to feeding Europol” with data on so-called foreign terrorist fighters who travel abroad and are then at risk of returning to carry out attacks, said the report, a copy of which was obtained by AFP. The European police organisation’s database contained only 2,956 foreign fighters despite official estimates saying that around 5,000 EU citizens had travelled to fight with the IS group. More than 90 percent of the names on the database were entered in 2015 by just five out of the 28 EU member states, he added. Another database, the European Information System, contained only 1,615 names, he said.
In related development, Brussels’ Maelbeek metro station, which was hit by one of the Islamic State suicide bombings a month ago that killed 32 people, will reopen on Monday, transport officials said. The Belgian parliament’s commission of inquiry into the attacks was due Friday to visit both Maalbeek station, near the EU’s headquarters, and Brussels Airport as part of its mission to shed light on both attacks by the end of the year.
Maelbeek station has been closed since Khalid El-Bakraoui detonated a bomb at 9:11 am on March 22 that killed 16 people on a train, part of coordinated attacks that hit the airport in Zaventem neighbourhood just over an hour earlier. Two teenage Islamic extremists were allegedly behind an explosion in a Sikh temple in the German city of Essen that wounded three people, the city’s police president said Thursday, calling the blast an “act of terror.” Essen police president Frank Richter told reporters the two 16-year-old boys from Essen and nearby Gelsenkirchen, whose identities weren’t given in accordance with German privacy laws, were under arrest. One had come forward while the second was arrested at his parents’ home, the German news agency dpa reported. “We must assume that this is an act of terror,” Richter said.
Police said both had clear links to Islamic extremism, and they were investigating if the two self-radicalized or were part of a bigger group. “We assume there will be more arrests,” Richter said, adding that 120 offi cers were investigating the bomb that exploded Saturday in the western city. Both boys had “partially admitted” the attack, but had not talked about their motives, he said.
The victims were among 200 people who had attended a wedding earlier at the temple. The cleric who had officiated, a 60-year-old man, suffered serious wounds and remains hospitalized. Two other men, aged 47 and 56, suffered slight injuries. Police in Essen said they’re still clueless as to why the Sikh community was targeted by the attackers. There are between 8,000 to 15,000 Sikhs in Germany, dpa reported. The interior minister of the western state of North Rhine-Westphalia, Ralf Jaeger, said the two teenagers had attracted the attention of police before the attack. Dpa reported they had links to Salafi st groups. “I find it shocking that people who grew up among us are in a position and willing to build bombs and risk the lives of others,” Jaeger said