BRUSSELS, BELGIUM – Belgian authorities on Friday arrested Mohamed Abrini, suspected of driving those involved in the Paris terror attacks and of being part of the deadly bombing months later at Brussels airport.
Eric Van der Sypt, a spokesman for the Belgian federal prosecutor’s office, said that Abrini was arrested along with Osama Krayem. Krayem may not be as well known, but he nonetheless may have been a critical figure in both the Paris and Brussels attacks.
As to Abrini, the 31-year-old Belgian-Moroccan had been among Europe’s most wanted and was considered “armed and dangerous.”
His arrest means that Belgian authorities now have at least two people, along with Salah Abdeslam, who have been directly tied to the November 13 attacks in Paris.
“For French investigators, this can be very big,” said CNN’s Nic Robertson. “This gives you a much stronger position to be in to get to the truth … to (track) other terrorists on the run down,” Robertson said. “And also to understand precisely what happened in Paris.”
But according to Peter Bergen, a leading terrorism expert and CNN analyst, Abrini’s arrest also puts pressure on Belgian authorities to find out information quickly.
Days after Abdeslam was arrested, terrorists carried out an attack in Brussels that left 32 dead and scores wounded. A senior counterterrorism official has said the 26-year-old was probably going to be part of an attack planned by the same ISIS cell.
“Hopefully Belgian counterterrorism officials won’t make the same mistake they made last time with Abdeslam,” said Bergen, the vice president of the New America public policy institute. “They didn’t ask him about what else was in the pipeline.”
Who is Mohamed Abrini?
According to a European police cooperative known as ENFAST, video showed Abrini with Abdeslam on November 11, two days before the massacre in the French capital.
The same Renault Clio that Abrini drove was used in those attacks, ENFAST reports. Abdeslam told authorities he drove a car of that same make and model to the Stade de France — where suicide bombers detonated explosives outside a soccer game — and abandoned it.
He then wandered into the subway and allegedly “contacted one person,” that being Abrini, CNN’s French affiliate BFMTV reported.
Abrini has a criminal record of violent theft. He also had a younger brother killed while fighting for ISIS in 2014, and he was in Istanbul, Turkey, briefly last summer and possibly in Syria.
Relatives have insisted Abrini was in Brussels the night of the Paris attacks.
More than four months later, Belgian state broadcaster VRT reports Abrini was still in the Belgian capital — playing a hands-on role in the terror attacks there.
He is “more than likely” one of three men shown on surveillance video rolling luggage carts through Brussels airport, according to VRT. The two others died in suicide blasts at the airport, while the third walked away.
On Thursday, Belgian police released a series of surveillance images showing him leaving the airport in Zaventem, then heading west into the Brussels district of Schaerbeek, over the course of two hours following the bombings.
Who is Osama Krayem?
The other person arrested, Osama Krayem, may not have gotten as much attention after the Brussels attacks, but that doesn’t make him any less dangerous.
That’s because Krayem is also Naim al Hamed, a source close to the Belgian investigation told CNN.
The 28-year-old was described as “very dangerous and probably armed” in a bulletin circulated by French investigators to European security services hours after the Brussels attacks.
A French source close to the investigation into ISIS’ terror network in France and Belgium told CNN that European security agencies believe Hamed, or Krayem, had an operational role in the Brussels attack.
The French newspaper Le Monde reported last month that his DNA was found at the apartment in Brussels’ Schaerbeek district where the three airport attackers left from the morning of March 22.
Born on New Year’s Day 1988 in Hama, Syria, he — like at least two of the Paris attackers — is thought to have come to Europe, along with hundreds of refugees from war-torn nations, via the Greek island of Leros.
Reputation as hotbed for jihadists
Friday’s arrests are simply the latest connection between the Belgian and French attacks.
Brussels’ Molenbeek neighborhood has developed a reputation as a hotbed for jihadists. Several of those people involved in the Paris attacks called it home, and Abdeslam was captured there.
CNN intelligence analyst Bob Baer, a former CIA operative who worked in Belgium, criticized Belgian authorities for not working better with other countries. He also said they hadn’t cracked down on crime and weapons dealers and didn’t have strong enough connections in communities that have spawned jihadists.
“They’ve been in denial all these years — it’s not our problem — until (terrorists) attacked,” Baer said. “… Then it did become their problem. But police have a long way to go before they manage this.”
Baer said that high unemployment and the lack of opportunity for youths in places such as Molenbeek doesn’t help.
“Ninety-nine percent of Muslims in Belgium integrate just fine, have jobs and families and the rest of it,” said Baer, co-author with Seymour Hersh of “See No Evil: The True Story of a Ground Soldier in the CIA’s War Against Terrorism.”
“But it’s that troubled, very small minority which is susceptible to this call to death.”