Brussels terror suspect sheds new light on ISIS plots and evading police
The sole survivor among the terrorists who attacked Brussels on March 22 has reportedly told Belgian police he was able to “hang out at a park” undetected for days afterward and he provided new details on the planning of both the Paris and Brussels terror attacks, according to transcripts of his interrogations.
Belgian network VTM gained access to those transcripts, which cover the police and judicial questioning of Mohamed Abrini on April 9 and 10, several hours after he was arrested.
Abrini was known as the “man in the hat” who was seen in a surveillance video from the Brussels airport with the two suicide bombers before they detonated their devices, killing 16 people. Abrini fled the scene.
VTM reporter Faroek Ozgunes obtained the full transcripts of the interrogations and told CNN they were very long and crammed with details about the man’s travel and acquaintances.
During the questioning, Abrini was contemptuous of the efforts police made to track him down after he was first identified last November in connection with the Paris terror attacks, which left 130 people dead.
“Security at the borders can never prevent an attack. The politicians just want to make the people believe that they protect them, but in reality there is no protection. It never really existed,” Abrini is reported to have told investigators, according to VTM.
Movements during the 2016 Brussels attacks
He also spoke of his movements after the attacks on the airport and a metro train in the Belgian capital, in which a total of 32 people were killed.
“After the attacks in Brussels, I met a woman in a cafe, where I stayed for a while,” Abrini claimed.
“During the day I just hung out in a park in Vorst (a suburb of Brussels). You know, an international arrest warrant, being searched for and so on — that doesn’t mean anything. Every day I passed soldiers, police. Not with a covered face, but with a cap.”
He was eventually arrested in the same area on April 8.
Salah Abdeslam: a key figure
Abrini also spoke during the interrogation about Salah Abdeslam, who escaped from Paris after the November attacks and was captured by Belgian police four months later.
Abrini suggests that Abdeslam, who has been extradited to France to await trial, was a key figure in the Paris plot.
“What I know about Salah (Abdeslam) is that he picked up all but a few of the people who were involved in the Paris attacks and who came from Syria,” Abrini said, according to VTM.
“I know that Salah picked them up and dropped them off at hiding places. I know this because I’ve slept with them in apartments — and I learned a lot of things.”
CNN had previously confirmed extensive travel by Abdeslam across Europe in rented cars, including trips to Italy, Hungary, Austria and Germany in the months before the November 13 Paris attacks.
Abrini also recounted his time in Syria. According to travel records, he traveled from Brussels to Istanbul, Turkey, on June 23, 2015. He then went overland to Raqqa — ISIS’ de facto headquarters in northern Syria.
His younger brother, Souleymane, had been killed fighting for the terror group, and according to their mother, Souleymane’s death had deeply affected Abrini.
In a text found on his computer after the Brussels attacks, Abrini said his brother’s death had driven him toward religion, according to CNN affiliate BFM-TV.
While in Raqqa, Abrini met Abdelhamid Abaaoud — the man who organized the Paris attacks and was later killed in a shootout with police in the Parisian suburb of St. Denis.
“Abaaoud in the beginning was just a normal fighter, but he rose through the ranks to ’emir’,” Abrini said in the interrogation.
“He had 1,000 men under him, of whom many were Belgian and French. He led fights with his men. He told me all that while I was there. He even showed me a scar from a sniper shot.”
Abrini insisted he was unaware of Abaaoud’s plans to launch terror attacks in France and Belgium.
“He didn’t tell me anything about his Europe plans. He mistrusted everyone. It’s partly for that reason that he only stayed with me for one day. I had come with my cell phone and he was afraid that he would be spied on with drones.”
Walking on British soil
Abrini told investigators, according to VTM’s account, that Abaaoud had sent him to the United Kingdom, where he picked up the equivalent of $3,800 in Birmingham — a sum destined for Abaaoud’s younger brother, who was also in Syria. Five people were arrested in Birmingham in April in a joint investigation by British, French and Belgian police.
While in England, according to VTM’s account of the interrogation, Abrini visited a football stadium in Manchester and took photographs.
“In his interrogation, he said the photos had nothing to do with reconnaissance of the stadium, and so no link should be drawn with (that stadium and) the Stade de France (where three suicide bombers blew themselves up in November),” VTM reported.
Abrini paints himself as a reluctant jihadist. According to VTM, he claimed that although he knew something was being planned in Paris, he didn’t do anything himself (Abrini was identified on surveillance video at a gas station in France two days before the attack, accompanied by Salah Abdeslam).
VTM reports that in the interrogation, Abrini told investigators that at a certain point he couldn’t back out of the network, but that he regretted being dragged along.
He said Abaaoud had “asked me several times to stay as a fighter (in Syria), but I didn’t like that idea. I’m not the guy to blow myself up or to shoot people.”
Even so, Abrini appears to have shown little sympathy for the more than 150 people killed in the Paris and Brussels attacks.
“The victims were in fact doomed much earlier — namely at the moment France declared war on the Islamic State,” he said, according to VTM.
Belgium has since handed over Abrini and Ali Oulkadi — another man suspected to be associated with the Paris attacks — to French authorities.
“Mohammed A. and Ali O. have been surrendered to the French authorities (in execution of the European Arrest Warrant issued by France),” the Belgian Federal Prosecutor’s office said in a statement.