BRUSSELS: The probe into a 2015 Daesh attack on a high-speed train bound for Paris took a step forward Monday as Belgian police held four men suspected of helping the gunman in his preparations.
Prosecutors said that following a series of raids around Brussels, “four people were taken in for questioning” and a judge would later rule on what further action to take against them.
A bloodbath was only narrowly averted on the Thalys train from Amsterdam to Paris in August 2015 when quick-thinking passengers including two off-duty US servicemen subdued gunman Ayoub El Khazzani — who was armed with a Kalashnikov, a pistol, and a box-cutter knife — as he opened fire.
The detentions add fresh weight to the links between Khazzani and the French-Belgian Daesh network responsible for the Paris attacks of November 2015 and the triple suicide bombings in Brussels in March 2016.
Belgian media reported that at least three of the four detainees knew the men who carried out the Paris and Brussels attacks, which between them left more than 160 people dead.
Those held on Monday include Mohamed Bakkali, who was already in custody charged with helping to organise the November 2015 Paris attacks, according to his lawyer.
Thalys attacker Khazzani — a Moroccan who fought for Daesh in Syria — has told investigators he was acting on the orders of Abdelhamid Abaaoud, one of the organisers of the Paris attacks, whom he met in the war-torn Middle Eastern country.
No weapons found
Prosecutors said “no explosives nor weapons were found” during Monday’s raids, one of which was in the gritty Brussels district of Molenbeek. The district gained notoriety as a hotbed of international jihadists after the attacks in the French and Belgian capitals.
A 29-year-old man was detained in Molenbeek on suspicion of housing Khazzani as well as Abaaoud, a judicial source said.
The suspect, who has not been named, was convicted of armed robbery with a Kalashnikov in 2009 alongside Khalid El Bakraoui — one of the suicide bombers who attacked Brussels, according to the RTBF news channel.
Abaaoud, the leader of the attacks on Parisian bars and restaurants, died in a shootout with police in the suburb of Saint Denis five days after the carnage that killed 130 people.
Another raid on Monday netted a friend of Bakkali and Bakraoui, on suspicion of buying around 15 Kalashnikov magazines in summer 2015, according to Belgian media.
“There are connections between the cell behind the Paris and Brussels attacks and the plan to attack the Thalys through Abaaoud and (Redouane Sebbar), but not enough today to say Khazzani’s plot came from this same cell,” a source close to the case said.
Sebbar, a Moroccan currently being held in Germany, is suspected of having a hand in the Thalys plot. Last week French authorities announced they had issued an arrest warrant for him in July.
The arrests were carried out by a joint French-Belgian investigating team under the authority of a Belgian anti-terrorism judge.