Who Is the Man in the White Jacket?
A mysterious figure at the center of the Brussels bombings points to a larger network linking the attack in Belgium with November's slaughter in Paris.
In grainy CCTV footage from the Brussels airport, a man in a white jacket is pictured walking next to two men with black gloves on their left hands. All three are pushing trolleys laden with large suitcases. The gloved men are thought to be carrying concealed detonators for the bombs hidden in their suitcases. But something went wrong for the man in the white jacket: His explosives didn't go off. The fugitive is now Belgium's --- and Europe’s -- most wanted man.
In grainy CCTV footage from the Brussels airport, a man in a white jacket is pictured walking next to two men with black gloves on their left hands. All three are pushing trolleys laden with large suitcases. The gloved men are thought to be carrying concealed detonators for the bombs hidden in their suitcases. But something went wrong for the man in the white jacket: His explosives didn’t go off. The fugitive is now Belgium’s — and Europe’s — most wanted man.
The mystery suspect has yet to be publicly identified by Belgian authorities, but he is believed to be part of an Islamic State terror network behind both Tuesday’s carnage in Brussels that killed 31 people and the Nov. 13, 2015, attacks in Paris that left 130 dead. The network has deep roots in Muslim neighborhoods in Belgium as well as the Islamic State’s bastion in eastern Syria. But events this week underscored how Belgian and other Western authorities are still struggling to get a handle on the full extent of the group’s tentacles in Europe, amid fears that another attack may be launched before security services can roll up the group’s cell.
In the confusion caused by the deadly attack on Brussels, Belgian media initially identified the man in the white jacket as Najim Laachraoui. Then they reported he had been arrested. And then they reported that he was dead. But multiple media reports, sourced to Arab and European intelligence officials and Belgian police, now claim that Laachraoui was one of two suicide bombers at Zaventem airport. As for the man in the white jacket who fled the scene of the crime, authorities still don’t know who he is or where he has gone.
Laachraoui’s participation in Tuesday’s attack indicates a troubling overlap between the terror cells that carried out this week’s bombings in Brussels and last year’s slaughter in Paris. The involvement of multiple operatives in both attacks points toward what officials have long described as their greatest fear: a far larger, highly secretive network of terror operatives with Western passports trained by the Islamic State to sow havoc in Europe.
“There was hope that in Paris that the cell basically killed itself,” said Patrick Skinner, the director of special projects at the Soufan Group, a private security consultancy, and a former CIA case officer who worked in counterterrorism. “But this cell is clearly much bigger, much more capable, and certainly much more durable.”
Whoever the man in the white jacket is, he most certainly wasn’t killed in the attack on the Brussels airport. Closed circuit television imagery recorded him dropping off the suitcase bomb and fleeing. He remains on the loose and has likely taken refuge among the same sort of family and criminal underground connections that allowed Salah Abdeslam, the 26-year-old logistics chief of the Paris attack, to evade the authorities for four months — and in the Belgian capital.
Laachraoui’s role in the Brussels attack draws a straight line from November’s carnage in Paris to events this week in Belgium. “Look at it this way: One cell just pulled off the deadliest attack in France since World War II, and now they’ve pulled off the deadliest attack in Belgium since World War II,” Skinner said.
Police found DNA from the 24-year-old Laachraoui on the suicide vests worn by the Paris attackers. His DNA was also discovered in a Brussels apartment where those vests are believed to have been assembled. In September, a month before the Paris attack, Laachraoui was in a car that was stopped on the border between Austria and Hungary. Also in that car was Abdeslam, the logistics boss of the Paris attack who was arrested last week, and an Algerian operative named Mohamed Belkaid.
Belkaid’s death last week kicked off a frantic few days of police activity that culminated in Abdeslam’s arrest. On Tuesday of last week, Belgian and French police approached an apartment they believed had once been used as a hideout for the terror cell linked to the Paris attack. The utility bills hadn’t been paid in months, leading the police to believe that it was empty. But upon attempting to enter the apartment, the police were confronted with a hail of gunfire. Two suspects fled the apartment while Belkaid remained, fending off police. He was killed by a police sniper when he approached a window to fire on officers in the street.
It is unclear whether Abdeslam was one of the men who fled the apartment, but intelligence acquired by the police during the raid in the Forest neighborhood of Brussels eventually led them to his location in the city’s Molenbeek district — a hotbed for Islamist extremists. According to Belgian state media, the Forest safe house was rented by Khalid El-Bakraoui, the suicide bomber who struck the Brussels metro Tuesday.
On Wednesday, Belgian federal prosecutor Frederic Van Leeuw told a news conference that the taxi driver who drove Ibrahim El-Bakraoui, brother of Khalid, and his accomplices to the airport led investigators back to the apartment where he had picked them up. There, investigators found 33 pounds of TATP, an explosive that can be manufactured from common household materials and has become the signature bomb of Islamic State operatives in Europe. They also found chemical precursors for the manufacture of the explosive.
Investigators have not yet revealed whether their forensic examination of the airport and subway station has determined that TATP was used in the attack. But the fact that the explosive was found in a safe house used by at least some of the terrorist operatives indicates the Islamic State’s favorite explosive has likely once more been put to use.
Laachraoui has been described in the media as the Brussels cell’s bomb maker — and that would make his participation as a suicide bomber highly unusual. Terrorist groups regard their bomb makers as their most valuable assets and rarely, if ever, send them on suicide missions.
TATP is a highly unstable explosive, and a bomb-maker skilled enough to produce a form of the material that can be transported is rare. “If you sneeze at that stuff it’s going to go off,” Skinner said. “It’s hard to make it and live. It’s like having sweaty nitroglycerin.”
Although it remained unclear whether Laachraoui was producing bombs or merely detonating them, Western intelligence agencies suspect there are other bomb makers still in the field. And officials fear more lethal attacks are in the offing until the rest of those assembling the explosives are caught.The Islamic State has long aspired to carry out attacks in the West and the militants appear to have shifted their aim toward “soft targets” that are easily accessible — like the theater and restaurants struck in Paris or the crowded streets in Istanbul, experts said.
The Islamic State has built its web of recruits and operatives in Europe on the allure of a fanatical ideology as well as Muslim community ties, while carving out a stronghold in Syria and Iraq. The European network and the Syrian sanctuary reinforce each other, with the haven in Syria providing a base for recruitment, training, and plotting terror attacks, experts and U.S. security officials said. A number of Islamic State militants who took part in the assaults in Paris and Brussels had traveled to Syria in the past few years. The ringleader of the Paris attacks, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, took more than one trip to Syria, and Laachraoui also spent time there in 2013.
“The group relies on a combination of strong networks within the continent and a sanctuary in Iraq and Syria,” Harleen Gambhir, a counterterrorism analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, told Foreign Policy.
The operatives’ ties to the local community in Belgium have contributed to the authorities’ difficulty in locating and arresting suspects. “Abdeslam relied on a large network of friends and relatives that already existed for drug dealing and petty crime to keep him in hiding,” Van Leeuw, the federal prosecutor, told Belgian media shortly before the Brussels attacks, referring to the logistics chief for the Paris attack. “This was about the solidarity of neighbors, families.”
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Wednesday that Ibrahim El-Bakraoui, who blew himself up in the attack on the Brussels airport, had been deported to the Netherlands at his own request and that the Belgian embassy in Ankara was informed of his case. But, the president said, “Belgium ignored our warning that this person is a foreign fighter.”
The Belgian government has come under swift criticism from counterterrorism experts and European officials for failing to thwart the attack, with analysts citing botched coordination between the county’s security and police agencies and a lack of resources dedicated to law enforcement. But in an interview with FP, the Belgian ambassador to the United States, Johan Verbeke, rejected what he called “cheap criticisms of the Belgian security establishment.”
“They are simply not true,” he said.
Verbeke emphasized the difficulties of stopping asymmetrical attacks by small cells of terrorists even at well-guarded targets like international airports.
“I was at the airport exactly 24 hours before the attacks happened,” he said. “Security was already heightened and still this terrorist act took place, and that’s simply because it just takes three people amid thousands of people traveling through the airport.”
One of those people — the man in the white jacket — remained on the loose Wednesday, moving within a terror network the size and scope of which authorities are only beginning to comprehend.
FP senior reporter John Hudson contributed reporting to this article.
Photo credit: Belgian Federal Police via Getty Images
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