By David Chazan, and Henry Samuel, in Brussels
Three suspects were charged with terrorism offences on Saturday including one man named in Belgian media as the third Brussels airport attacker who fled as the other two blew themselves up.
The man, described as a freelance journalist, Fayçal Cheffou, was reported to be the mysterious third man captured on CCTV footage wearing a hat and a light-coloured summer jacket previously identified as Mohamed Abrini, 31. The two suicide bombers with him, Ibrahim El-Bakraoui and Najim Laachraoui, detonated their suitcase bombs, but his failed to go off and he was seen running away.
In earlier reports, however, the mysterious third man captured on camera was identified as Mohamed Abrini, 31.
Amid continuing confusion about the third suspect’s identity, a source close to the investigation said police were trying to confirm if the man is Cheffou, who was arrested as police rounded up suspects linked with the network behind the Brussels bombings on Thursday and Friday.
According to Le Soir newspaper, quoting an anonymous police source, Cheffou was recognised in a police lineup by the taxi driver who dropped off the three terrorists at the airport on Tuesday morning.
The report has not been confirmed. A source close to the investigation said police were exploring a theory that Cheffou was the third attacker. “It is a hypothesis the investigators are working on,” the source said.
Cheffou and two other men are the first suspects to be charged over the Brussels airport and metro bombings that killed 31 people on Tuesday.
Cheffou was charged with “taking part in the activities of a terrorist group and actual and attempted terrorist murder,” prosecutors said.
Suspected of being a jihadist recruiter, he has been on the police radar for months.
Cheffou was arrested several times for attempting to persuade migrants who gather at the Maximilien park in Brussels to join radical groups. The Brussels mayor, Yvan Mayeur, had warned police several times that he was dangerous and asked for him to be detained.
However, prosecutors reportedly refused, and in September last year the mayor obtained on order barring Cheffou from the park.
He is best known to the Belgian public for a video in which he complained that Muslims at a migrants’ centre in Brussels were served meals before the end of the Ramadan fast.
The two others, named only as Aboubakar A. and Rabah N., were charged with “terrorist activities and membership of a terrorist group”. Rabah N. was wanted in connection with a related raid in France on Thursday that the government said foiled a “major terrorist attack”.
François Hollande, the French president, said the network behind the Paris attacks that killed 130 people in November and the Brussels bombings on Tuesday was being “wiped out” although the threat remained high and other terror rings were still at large.
Belgian prosecutors said they were holding another suspect, Abderamane Ameroud, for an extra 24 hours. He was shot in the leg by police in Brussels on Friday in the Schaerbeek district where the Brussels bombings were prepared.
However, his arrest was also linked to Thursday’s raid in Paris.
Ameroud was reportedly convicted in 2003 as an accomplice in the assassination of the Afghan political and military leader, Ahmed Shah Massoud, two years earlier.
One of those arrested on Friday, Tawfik A., was released “after extensive questioning”, the prosecutor’s office said.
‘Nuclear guard found dead with with pass missing’
A security guard who worked at a Belgian nuclear research centre was murdered two days after the Brussels bombings, as his employer G4S say they “can’t rule out” that his death was linked to terrorist attacks.
However, prosecutors insist that the murder is being handled as a criminal rather than a terrorism case and deny reports that his work pass was stolen, according to the Belga news agency.
The report raised concerns that the Brussels bombers had wanted to build a radioactive dirty bomb — but apparently shelved the plan after security was stepped up at Belgium’s nuclear plants following intelligence warnings.
The guard, Didier Prospero, was shot dead at his home in Froidchapelle.
A police spokeswoman said she could not comment on the case because the investigation was ongoing.
Prospero, who worked for the G4S security company at a nuclear research centre in Fleurus, near Charleroi, was shot four times, Belga reported.
He was found dead in his bathroom by his three children when they returned from school, the news agency added. An earlier report had said he was shot while walking his dog.
A source from G4S told The Telegraph: “He was killed at gunpoint at his home. All indications are that it has nothing to do with his work, from what we understand. There is no missing pass. All his uniform and his papers are accounted for. G4S are co-operating with the police investigation.”
The sources said he “can’t rule out” that Prospero’s death was to do with the terrorist attacks, since the police investigation is ongoing.
He added that Prospero works as a patrol and response officer at non-nuclear sites, with access to inside the sites. He was not one of the eleven nuclear workers had their work passes revoked after intelligence warnings, the source said.
The Charleroi prosecutor’s office was not available on Saturday to confirm Belga’s report. However, a source close to the investigation said detectives believe that “Prospero was probably murdered during a burglary that went wrong or for personal reasons”.
News of the concern heightened concern about security at Belgian nuclear facilities, known to be targets for the terror network behind the Brussels bombings and the Paris attacks in November.
A senior nuclear industry official was secretly filmed by jihadists last year, Belgium’s nuclear authority said, apparently with the intention of abducting him and obtaining radioactive material.
Eleven nuclear workers had their work passes revoked after intelligence warnings. Ibrahim and Khalid El-Bakraoui, the two brothers believed to have blown themselves up at Brussels airport and a metro station, are suspected of involvement in an Islamic State plot to make a bomb that could have contaminated a large populated area with radioactive material.
The brothers were linked to the surveillance of the head of Belgium’s nuclear research and development programme.
However, it was only two weeks after the filming was discovered that soldiers were deployed to guard nuclear facilities — at the beginning of this month. After the filming was discovered in February, the interior minister, Jan Jambon, rejected the proposal, saying: “Nothing indicates a specific threat to nuclear power plants… This is why we are not planning any military support.”
The government soon changed its mind and on March 4 approved the deployment of 140 soldiers to guard five nuclear facilities.
In the hours following the Brussels bombings, two nuclear power plants were evacuated.
It was not the first time that fears of a terror threat to Belgium’s creaky nuclear power plants were raised.
In 2013, an engineer from Doel 4, one of the nuclear reactors of a power plant near Anvers, was sacked over concerns that he had been radicalised after he refused to shake his superior’s hand.
The nuclear company, Electrabel, said: ”He was no longer compatible with the values of Electrabel.”
In January, L’Echo magazine revealed that the man in question was the brother-in-law of Azzedine Kbir Bounekoub, a jihadist involved with Sharia4Belgium, who left Belgium to join Isil in Syria in 2012 under the nom de guerre of Abu Abdullah. He is known for having frequently called on Isil sympathisers to launch terror attacks in Belgium.
In another disturbing incident, a turbine at the same Doel 4 reactor was sabotaged in 2014. Someone deliberately turned security cameras the other way and then emptied 65,000 litres of oil used to lubricate the turbine. “Then they put the lid back on to make everyone think all was well,” according to Eloi Glorieux, a nuclear expert at Greenpeace Belgium.
The incident has never been elucidated and there have been no arrests. The federal prosecutor is “seriously considering” the theory that was linked to terrorism, according to the French newspaper Libération.
The nuclear plant in question is within range of a string of petrochemical plants and one of the most densely populated regions in Europe, with 1.5 million people in a 30km range.
“This sabotage could have sparked a true catastrophe,” said Jean-Marc Nollet, Belgian MP and head of the Greens’ parliamentary group. “We were lucky in a way.”
Jean-Marc Pirotton, union representative at the Tihange nuclear plant said that the plants were very well-protected, there were vulnerabilities. “Belgium nuclear plants were not designed to withstand a big plane crashing into them, only the planes around at the time they were built,” he told Libération newspaper.
Protection of the site is run by external security contractors, whose agents are unarmed and not allowed to arrest suspects – only to alert police; Half of the plants’ staff are external and their security vetting, according to unions, is not nearly as thorough as those working for Electrobel, Belgium’s nuclear operator.
The country’s creaking nuclear plants and seven reactors have been causing safety concerns with neighbouring countries after a series of problems ranging from leaks to cracks, as well as the reported sabotage.
Despite the concerns, the Belgian parliament voted last year to prolong their life for another ten years. – World News Reports