The arrest of Salah Abdeslam in Brussels was a temporary respite for authorities. Now they are expanding the investigation in the hunt for suspects linked to the Paris terror attacks. Barbara Wesel reports.
"We have quite a few pieces of the puzzle and in the last few days several have found their place," Belgian Federal Prosecutor Frederic Van Leeuw said Monday in Brussels. "But we are still far from solving the puzzle."
Unanswered questions in the investigation of the November 13 terror attacks in Paris include: Who gave the orders? Who helped prepare the attacks? Who's pulling the strings in Syria? And how many people knew about the plans?
The network is bigger than we thought, French President Francois Hollande warned last week - and the police have meanwhile widened their search and are currently hunting for two suspects whom they first became aware of in the wake of last week's arrests.
Wanted for Paris attacks
One of the suspects long eluded the police with false documents, but has now been identified as Najim Laachraoui, a 25-year-old who allegedly spent some time in Syria in 2013. His DNA was found on explosive belts in Paris and in several hideouts in Belgium, including a house near the city of Namur and an apartment in the Brussels district of Schaarbeek.
Laachraoui was checked last September as he was crossing Austria's border to Hungary, seated in a car with Salah Abdeslam and Mohamed Belkaid, one of the alleged planners of the attacks. Back then, Laachraoui's documents didn't attract attention. Belkaid was shot dead last Tuesday in a raid in the Brussels district of Forest.
Police are also searching for Mohamed Abrini, Abdeslam's childhood friend and neighbor from the Molenbeek neighborhood of Brussels. International arrest warrants are out for both Abrini, who is suspected of participating in the Paris attacks as a planner and driver, and Laachraoui. One of Abrini's brothers is thought to be in Syria, fighting for the self-styled "Islamic State" (IS). Abrini's trail was found in at least one of the hideouts the terrorist group used ahead of the attacks.
France demands extradition
At a news conference in Brussels, Van Leeuw's French counterpart, Francois Molins, stressed the close cooperation with Belgian authorities. He also left no doubt as to what he expects from his partners. France has issued a European arrest warrant for Salah Abdeslam, he said, adding that it's now up to Belgium to speak out on the matter.
It's not very likely that Belgium wants to conduct a complex lawsuit against the only terrorist survivor of the Paris attacks. On the other hand, he appears to be talking quite openly to the Belgian investigators. He's "worth his weight in gold," according to his lawyer Sven Mary. At the same time, Mary plans to challenge the extradition. Mary is one of Belgium's most well-known defense attorneys, bound to use every trick in the book for his client.
But Abdeslam is a French citizen, and the attacks took place in Paris, so, from a legal point of view, there's no getting past an extradition to France. At best, Mary might gain some time while the Belgian investigators try to learn more about the connections to, and the planners of, the attacks before they have to extradite him to Paris.
Molins is calm in the face of Mary's intention to sue him over accusations that he made public some of Abdeslam's testimony last weekend. As a way to prevent rumors, he's "allowed to make certain findings public," Molins has argued.
Belgian judiciary, police overtaxed
Only one federal prosecutor is currently working on the Abdeslam case, and three judges are busy with related cases: Belgium's authorities are overstretched by the sheer bulk of investigations and findings. "Every week, we get two to three new dossiers," Van Leeuw said Monday.
The country's police and justice systems don't have the manpower they need to deal with the magnitude of the Islamist networks that stretch across the country from Molenbeek. Another reason to swear by the close cooperation with their French colleagues - most recently, French officers were on the scene for the raids and arrests.
Peace and quiet in Molenbeek
Meanwhile, the streets of Molenbeek have quieted down, at least superficially. However, recent attempts at trying to shed the international image of "a cradle of jihadism" have most probably failed.
Even if a tip from the public led to Abdelslam's arrest, it seems that Islamist structures continue to exist in the suburb while the police and the judiciary have no resources to investigate them. Locally, Fatima Aberkan, in whose apartment Abdeslam and his two accomplices hid, is known as "Mother Jihad." Allegedly, three young men from her family joined the IS in Syria.
Belgium's Interior Minister Jan Jambon has warned that Abdeslam's supporters might seek revenge for his arrest. While all stops have been pulled out for the investigation, the serious threat of a terror attack continues to exist in Brussels.