Mystery Paris suspect – and Brussels attack ‘man in hat’?
He was the mystery fugitive hunted by police over the Paris attacks, but even after his arrest in Brussels, the exact role of Mohamed Abrini in the November carnage remains unclear.
Investigators are now examining whether in addition to being a possible logistics man for the Paris attacks, Abrini was also the third suspected attacker in last month’s Brussels airport bombing — the so-called “man in the hat”.
Police have been desperately searching for the third suspect ever since he was caught on security cameras next to the two suicide bombers who blew themselves up at the airport in coordinated attacks that also struck a Brussels metro station. A total of 32 people died.
Abrini’s fingerprints were found in the flat where the airport bombers were before their attack on March 22.
Abrini, a Belgian of Moroccan origin, was seen at a petrol station north of Paris two days before the attacks in the French capital with other top suspect Salah Abdeslam, who drove one of the vehicles used in the November 13 assaults that killed 130 people.
The black Renault Clio the pair were driving was later used to transport the three suicide attackers who struck outside the Stade de France, and investigators believe Abrini accompanied Abdeslam and his brother Brahim — another attacker — on two other trips between Brussels and Paris.
Interviewed by AFP in November, Abrini’s family swore that on the night of the Paris carnage he was in Molenbeek, the tough Brussels neighbourhood that has earned a reputation as a haven for radical jihadists.
His trips back and forth between Paris and Brussels suggest he played at least a logistical role in the tangled network of Islamic State militants behind two of the worst terror attacks on European soil in recent years.
Belgian prosecutors said Friday after Abrini’s arrest that he and Abdeslam had rented an apartment in the Paris suburbs used by the November 13 gunmen before their deadly rampage.
Abrini and Abdeslam — also arrested near his family home in Molenbeek last month — grew up together as friends in the district, where their families live next door to each other.
Nicknamed “Brioche” after his days working in a bakery, Abrini is thought to have given up training as a welder at age 18 and begun gravitating towards the extremist milieu.
During the course of the Paris investigation, it emerged that Abrini had a long record of theft and drug possession over the past 15 years, with his brother confirming he had done several stints in jail.
“Brioche is someone who likes money a lot and who has had a lot of money. In fact, he was reputed to have made himself 200,000 euros. That is a thief,” fellow suspect Ali Oulkadi told Belgian investigators.
“He never spoke about religion or anything like that.”
Identified as a radical Islamist by Belgian investigators, Abrini is believed to have briefly visited Syria last year, and his younger brother Suleiman, 20, died there.
He was known to the anti-terror services for belonging to the same cell as Abdelhamid Abaaoud, one of the organisers of the Paris attacks and one of three gunmen who opened fire on bars and restaurants there.
“He never spoke of” going to Syria or of IS, his mother said.
“They say he is dangerous, that he is armed,” she sighed.
“It makes me sick.”
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