MARSEILLE // Three suicide bombers who struck in Brussels on Tuesday were identified yesterday, including two brothers and a bomb maker with links to the Paris terrorist attacks.
Ibrahim El Bakraoui, 29, and Najim Laachraoui, 24, died at Zaventem airport after they detonated devices packed into suitcases. A third airport bomber escaped, leaving behind the largest of the three bombs, which police later detonated safely.
El Bakraoui’s brother Khalid, 27, was the suicide bomber killed with his victims in a train at Maalbeek metro station, the Belgian federal prosecutor Frederic Van Leeuw said.
The brothers and Laachraoui were accomplices of Salah Abdeslam, who was arrested in Brussels last week and charged with playing a key role in the attacks that killed 130 people in Paris last November.
Prosecutors said before the Brussels bombings that Abdeslam admitted after his arrest last Friday that he was planning an attack in the city.
Laachraoui is an electromechanical engineer thought to have made the suicide vests used in the Paris attacks.
Investigators have now established a clear link between Tuesday’s attack in Brussels, in which 31 people died and 270 were injured, and the Paris attacks that killed 130.
Using a false name, Khalid El Bakraoui rented a flat in the Forest district of Brussels. Abdeslam’s fingerprint was found there after a police raid last week.
Two others, possibly the Bakraoui brothers, escaped during the raid. Khalid is also thought to have rented a property in the town of Charleroi, south of Brussels, from which the Paris attacks were launched.
Neverthless, questions have been raised about the efficacy of the Belgian investigation since the November Paris attacks, which involved several men of Moroccan origin from the same district of the capital, Molenbeek.
The Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan said last night Turkish security had detained Ibrahim El Bakraoui in June last year and deported him, but Belgian authorities later released him as no links with terrorism were found.
“Despite our warnings that this person was a foreign terrorist fighter, the Belgian authorities could not identify a link to terrorism,” Mr Erdogan said.
Terror analysts say coordinated strikes cannot normally be planned in two or three days, ruling out the theory that the Brussels bombers acted in revenge for Abdeslam’s arrest.
But accomplices might have brought planned attacks forward, fearing Abdeslam might give information away while being interrogated.
As Belgium began three days of mourning yesterday for the 31 victims, Mr Van Leeuw said that figure could rise.
Belgium’s health minister, Maggie De Block, said several of the 270 injured were in critical condition and induced comas.
Laachraoui and Abdeslam are friends. Using an alias, Soufiane Kayal, he is known to have crossed through a checkpoint between Hungary and Austria last September with Abdeslam and Mohamed Belkaid, who killed in last week’s police operation in Forest.
Both El Bakraoui brothers had served jail sentences for serious crime, not terrorist related. Ibrahim was convicted in 2010 of shooting and wounding a police officer after a robbery and the following year Khalid was jailed for carjacking. Analysts have observed a tendency for some petty or major criminals from Muslim backgrounds to become radicalised in prison or under peer pressure.
A computer retrieved from a rubbish bin close to the Brussels apartment from which the three airport bombers left by taxi on Tuesday morning contained what prosecutors said wasIbrahim El Bakraoui’s will.
He wrote of “not knowing what to do, being hunted everywhere” and of fearing he would end up in a prison cell “next to him”. The last three words may refer to Abdeslam, though they could equally allude to a third brother serving a prison term.
Inside the flat, investigators found what amounted to a bomb factory, including 15kg of explosives and nails of the sort used to pack the airport bombs.
An ISIL flag was also recovered. The terrorist group admitted responsibility for the Brussels attacks in a statement disseminated a few hours after they occurred.
Although a number of important arrests have been made since the Paris attacks, the intelligence services and counter-terrorism police have been accused of failing to share information readily and of being taken by surprise by suspects’ movements in and out of the country.
Abdelhamid Abaaoud, killed five days after the Paris attacks – of which he was allegedly a ringleader - in a gun battle with police, boasted in phone messages of being able to return from ISIL involvement in Syria to set up a safe house in Belgium. “My name and pictures were all over the news,” he wrote in one message. “Yet I was able to stay in their homeland, plan operations against them and leave safely.”
Many European politicians and analysts now fear ISIL’s network of activists in Europe is so well established that further atrocities must be expected.
In the UK, even as Britain’s prime minister David Cameron chaired a meeting of his crisis committee, Cobra, a former interior minister, Lord Reid, called yesterday on European governments to be honest with their citizens about the likelihood of attacks. He added that he expected the UK to be targeted again.
The French prime minister Manuel Valls said there was now an urgent need for EU countries to tighten external borders. He told French radio ISIL was known to have stolen a large number of Syrian passports.
The fallout from the Brussels attacks has also affected sport. A friendly football match between Belgium and Portugal, scheduled for the King Baudouin stadium in Brussels next Tuesday, has been switched to a Portuguese venue.
Mr Valls and other politicians and media commentators have talked of Europe being at war with ISIL. But community leaders are anxious for a distinction to be made between innocent, law-abiding Muslims and extremists and their sympathisers,
Muslims have been among those talking part in a vigil in the Place de la Bourse in Brussels, honouring the dead and rejecting terrorism.
The Brussels-born Manchester City and Belgium defender Vincent Kompany tweeted after Tuesday’s attacks: “I wish for Brussels to act with dignity. We are all hurting, yet we must reject hate and its preachers. As hard as it may be.”