Has the small Belgian town of Vilvoorde figured out how to reintegrate its Islamists?

Financial Times reports: One winter’s day in 2014 in a small Belgian town, an apparition from Syria’s war walked unannounced into Hans Bonte’s office. Only recently released from prison, the returned fighter wove his way through the corridors of Vilvoorde’s town hall in search of the mayor.

Still wearing his electronic security bracelet and arriving with no notice or permission, the 20-something man never threatened Mr Bonte. Instead, he blurted out his problem — local police and social services were making his life a misery — and his cunning solution.

“He told me ‘the day I don’t have to wear my bracelet any more I will move to Brussels’,” says Mr Bonte, the mayor of Vilvoorde, a struggling industrial town just outside of the Belgian capital. “He said, ‘You are controlling me too much, and I have all these problems here.’”

His plan remains on hold — the man ended up back in prison for other offences — but for Mr Bonte, the possibility that the former jihadi in Syria could go to Brussels and fall off the radar was real. “The lack of control and organisation in the Brussels area remains an enormous problem, also for the security of the whole country,” the Vilvoorde mayor says.

Not long ago, the Flemish town’s biggest problem was factory closures. But since taking office three years ago, Mr Bonte’s top priority has become counter-radicalisation. About 30 people from this community of 40,000 left to fight in Syria and Iraq; some of them even used to play football with Mr Bonte’s son.

His strategy for stemming the flow has shown clear signs of success and has won praise as a creative model of how to effectively marshal the mayor’s powers, which include oversight of local police. [Continue reading…]

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Why Europe can’t find the jihadis in its midst

Mitch Prothero reports: The assignment given to the Belgian police in the summer of 2014 was straightforward but high stakes: Follow two men suspected of involvement with ISIS through the streets of Brussels. Find out who they meet, record what they say. A court had approved wiretaps for the men’s phones and for the use of tracking devices, and a specialized team of covert operators from the secret service had broken into the men’s homes and vehicles and planted bugs and GPS devices without leaving a trace.

Rather unusually, there had been little problem getting senior police officials and the courts that oversee Belgium’s personal privacy laws to approve the mission. Partly, it was the two men’s history: They had long criminal records — drug dealing, petty theft, and the occasional violent robbery — and now, unbeknownst to them, had been placed on a terrorism watch list.

With hundreds of people suspected of having ties to ISIS and al-Qaeda, it would be impossible for the Belgian authorities to monitor all of them. But these two were believed to be linked to Mehdi Nemmouche, a 29-year-old French-Algerian man charged with killing four people at the Jewish Museum of Brussels on May 24, 2014.

Belgian authorities knew there had been an alarming increase in violent rhetoric — as evidenced by the proliferation of online videos and public demonstrations, and by the criminal trials of members of Sharia4Belgium, a group advocating extremist ideology — much of it linked to the rise of ISIS in Syria and Iraq. But even for trained investigators, let alone police officers typically assigned to financial fraud or money-laundering cases, getting an overall sense of what was happening remained elusive.

In part this was because of the transformation in the threat posed by ISIS militants; as nebulous as al-Qaeda had been, it was at least an organization with a defined leadership and network of followers. These new cases were much more challenging, seemingly organic in nature, with a more diffuse structure that was nearly impossible to pin down. [Continue reading…]

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How a secretive branch of ISIS built a global network of killers

The New York Times reports: Believing he was answering a holy call, Harry Sarfo left his home in the working-class city of Bremen last year and drove for four straight days to reach the territory controlled by the Islamic State in Syria.

He barely had time to settle in before members of the Islamic State’s secret service, wearing masks over their faces, came to inform him and his German friend that they no longer wanted Europeans to come to Syria. Where they were really needed was back home, to help carry out the group’s plan of waging terrorism across the globe.

“He was speaking openly about the situation, saying that they have loads of people living in European countries and waiting for commands to attack the European people,” Mr. Sarfo recounted on Monday, in an interview with The New York Times conducted in English inside the maximum-security prison near Bremen. “And that was before the Brussels attacks, before the Paris attacks.”

The masked man explained that, although the group was well set up in some European countries, it needed more attackers in Germany and Britain, in particular. “They said, ‘Would you mind to go back to Germany, because that’s what we need at the moment,’” Mr. Sarfo recalled. “And they always said they wanted to have something that is occurring in the same time: They want to have loads of attacks at the same time in England and Germany and France.”

The operatives belonged to an intelligence unit of the Islamic State known in Arabic as the Emni, which has become a combination of an internal police force and an external operations branch, dedicated to exporting terror abroad, according to thousands of pages of French, Belgian, German and Austrian intelligence and interrogation documents obtained by The Times.

The Islamic State’s attacks in Paris on Nov. 13 brought global attention to the group’s external terrorism network, which began sending fighters abroad two years ago. Now, Mr. Sarfo’s account, along with those of other captured recruits, has further pulled back the curtain on the group’s machinery for projecting violence beyond its borders.

What they describe is a multilevel secret service under the overall command of the Islamic State’s most senior Syrian operative, spokesman and propaganda chief, Abu Muhammad al-Adnani. Below him is a tier of lieutenants empowered to plan attacks in different regions of the world, including a “secret service for European affairs,” a “secret service for Asian affairs” and a “secret service for Arab affairs,” according to Mr. Sarfo. [Continue reading…]

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Signs of bigger ISIS cell in Germany emerge

The Wall Street Journal reports: A man who was detained in France and exposed an Islamic State terror cell in Germany told authorities that the cell contained many more people than the three arrested last week, according to officials familiar with his testimony.

The revelations, part of new details emerging about the arrested suspects, add to concerns that the extremist group could be poised to strike again in Europe.

Authorities in France, Germany and the Netherlands are examining testimony from Saleh A., who walked into a police station in the north of Paris in February claiming that he was part of an Islamic State sleeper cell of between 10 and 20 people, officials familiar with the investigation said. Based on his testimony, German police last week arrested three suspected Islamic State members who arrived in the country among Syrian asylum seekers on suspicion of preparing an attack in the western Germany city of Düsseldorf.

“Saleh A.’s statements are central” to the investigation, one German official familiar with the investigation said. German and French authorities have worked closely together on the case, the person said, adding that German investigators had been able to question Saleh A.

Saleh A. told French police that his terror cell was awaiting instructions from a certain Abu Doujana Al Tunisi, supposedly the head of foreign fighters for Islamic State, and that around 20 people were members of the cell, according to a French official. Another official familiar with the probe said Saleh A. had told investigators about 10 people would participate in the attack in Düsseldorf. [Continue reading…]

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Belgium to begin air strikes against ISIS in Syria

AFP reports: Belgium will extend its F-16 air strikes against Islamic State jihadists in Iraq into Syria, the government said Friday, as it grapples with the aftermath of deadly IS-claimed bomb attacks in Brussels in March.

“In accordance with UN Resolution 2249, the engagement will be limited to those areas of Syria under the control of IS and other terrorist groups,” a spokesman for Prime Minister Charles Michel told AFP after a cabinet meeting.

“The objective will be to destroy these groups’ refuges,” the spokesman said, adding that the strikes would begin on July 1.

Belgium launched its first attacks against IS in Iraq in late 2014 as part of the US-led coalition, but decided against strikes in Syria amid public fears over getting dragged into a wider conflict. [Continue reading…]

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Suspects linked to the alleged ringleader of the Paris attacks go on trial in Belgium

The Wall Street Journal reports: Islamic State sent at least three Belgians who had joined its ranks in Syria back to Europe in 2014 to carry out an attack that was narrowly foiled, according to evidence revealed Monday by Belgian judges at the start of a trial involving at least 16 people implicated in the plot.

The plot appears to foreshadow the Nov. 13 attacks in Paris: The men were taking orders from a man they called Omar, the judges said, identified by authorities as Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the Belgian Islamic State operative who led the group that attacked Paris.

The alleged plot, whose target is unclear, was foiled in January 2015, when elite Belgian and French police killed two of the men at a safe house in the eastern Belgian town of Verviers and arrested several others.

Authorities failed to catch Mr. Abaaoud, allowing him to rebuild his network in Europe for the terror attacks he orchestrated in Paris in November.

The judges presented evidence at the start of a three-week trial in the Brussels courthouse. Nine of the defendants weren’t present: They are believed to be fighting in the ranks of Islamic State in Syria or, authorities fear, back in Europe.

Belgian security services had been listening to the men’s telephone calls after discovering that one of the defendants—, Souhaib El Abdi, who authorities allege has numerous connections to known Islamist radicals in Belgium—had recently returned from a brief stay in Turkey, suggesting he may have gone to Syria, the judges said.

“I was there on vacation,” Mr. El Abdi said Monday at the trial.

Prosecutors labeled four of the men on trial as leaders of the plot. Among them are Mr. El Abdi, Mohammed Arshad Mahmood Najmi, a former tram driver in the Brussels transport system, and Marouan El Bali.

Mr. Najmi has admitted to spending several weeks in the ranks of Islamic State in September 2014, his lawyer says. He has told police interrogators that an Islamic State commander sent him back to Europe to carry out an attack, according to people familiar with his testimony. [Continue reading…]

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Belgian police knew since 2014 that Abdeslam brothers planned ‘irreversible act’

Politico reports: Belgian police had information as early as mid-2014 that Paris attackers Salah and Brahim Abdeslam intended to carry out “an irreversible act,” according to a classified police watchdog’s report on the country’s response to the Paris attacks.

Brahim Abdeslam blew himself up in Paris last November during the attacks that killed 130 people, while Salah fled and was captured in Brussels last month, four days before the terror attacks in Brussels.

The conclusions of the report, a copy of which was obtained by POLITICO, says the brothers’ radicalization, links to Paris attacks mastermind Abdelhamid Abaaoud, and their intention to commit some sort of act were known to Belgian security forces well before the attacks.

The police’s anti-terror unit argued that it could not file a report on the brothers into the central police database because it could not be established with certainty which brother was involved.

But the watchdog questions that argument, saying the names of both Abdeslam brothers, who lived in the Molenbeek neighborhood of Brussels, were already in the database. [Continue reading…]

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Paris terror suspect views life like Grand Theft Auto video game, says his lawyer

Ishaan Tharoor writes: Salah Abdeslam, the 26-year-old French national of Moroccan origin suspected of involvement in November’s terrorist attacks in Paris, was transferred to French custody by Belgian authorities Wednesday. According to French officials, he’ll be placed in solitary confinement in a maximum-security facility as investigative judges determine his eventual charges.

Abdeslam, as my colleague James McAuley noted, was seized March 18 in the troubled Brussels neighborhood of Molenbeek, which is home to a large, impoverished Muslim minority population. He was arrested for his suspected role in the Paris attacks, which claimed 130 lives, but his capture also preceded — and potentially inspired — a grim set of bombings in Brussels on March 22. Both assaults were believed to have been carried out by proxies of the Islamic State extremist group.

In an interview with the French daily Liberation, Sven Mary, Abdeslam’s Belgian attorney, heaped opprobrium on his departing client, whom Mary described as having “the intelligence of an empty ashtray — an abysmal emptiness.” [Continue reading…]

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Should states take legal action against people who went to fight in Syria but haven’t committed terrorist acts?

The New York Times reports: Ten young Muslim men, bored by a mundane life in France and haunted by a “feeling of uselessness,” as one put it, were seduced by a leading Islamic State recruiter in Europe in 2013. Within months, they were in Syria under the watchful eyes of hooded, Kalashnikov-wielding militants, doing push-ups, fiddling with weapons and imbibing the ideology.

But the harsh regimen, most have since told investigators, was not to their liking, and it was not long before they hastened back to their families in the Strasbourg area, where they were almost immediately picked up by the French authorities.

What to do with hundreds, perhaps thousands, of such young men in Europe is now among the biggest challenges facing governments and security services.

After the Paris and Brussels terrorist attacks, which were carried out in part by Europeans who had spent time in Syria with the Islamic State, France and other countries are grappling with how far to go in tightening laws to prosecute, monitor and restrict the movements of returnees.

At the heart of the debate is whether to take pre-emptive legal action against people who have not committed terrorist acts or even been implicated in a plot, but who have simply been to Syria and possibly received training in Islamic State camps. [Continue reading…]

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In photos, ISIS shows how Brussels terror originated in Syria

The New York Times reports: Somewhere, there is a digital archive containing the portraits of the Islamic State’s network of fighters in Europe. The image of each fighter was stored in this database months before last year’s attacks in Paris, and after each new terror strike, the group has reached into it and released the photographs. So it was on Wednesday.

The latest issue of Dabiq, the Islamic State’s slick online magazine, includes an image of Najim Laachraoui, the 24-year-old former Catholic school pupil who was last seen wheeling a suitcase bomb into the Brussels airport. He is wearing military fatigues and sadistically winking at the camera. Next to him is a man with a bloody knife, suggesting they had just beheaded a captive.

It is worth noting that the two men’s uniforms exactly match those worn by the Paris attackers last year, as shown in another set of photographs and an accompanying video, also pulled from the archive. Those were shot somewhere in Syria or Iraq before the attacks, and made public soon after. They have the same desert camouflage pattern, the same tan cap and tactical vest, the same cutoff gloves and grotesque scene of bloodshed.

Before returning to Europe, both the Brussels bomber and the Paris plotters posed for carefully choreographed scenes, showing the atrocities they committed in Syria and Iraq. The purpose is clear: to show the West that the attackers really were sent from the heart of the group’s terror machinery. [Continue reading…]

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A Brussels mentor who taught ‘gangster Islam’ to the young and angry

The New York Times reports: He lived under the rafters in a small attic apartment in the Brussels district of Molenbeek, and became known to some followers as the Santa Claus of jihad. He had the bushy beard and potbelly, and generously offered money and advice to young Muslims eager to fight in Syria and Somalia, or to wreak havoc in Europe.

When the Belgian police seized the computer of the man, Khalid Zerkani, in 2014, they found a trove of extremist literature, including tracts titled “Thirty-Eight Ways to Participate in Jihad” and “Sixteen Indispensable Objects to Own Before Going to Syria.” In July, Belgian judges sentenced him to 12 years in prison for participating in the activities of a terrorist organization, and declared him the “archetype of a seditious mentor” who spread “extremist ideas among naïve, fragile and agitated youth.”

But only in the months since then has the full scale of Mr. Zerkani’s diligent work on the streets of Molenbeek and beyond become clear, as the network he helped nurture has emerged as a central element in attacks in both Paris and Brussels — as well as one in France that the authorities said last month they had foiled.

“Mr. Zerkani has perverted an entire generation of youngsters, particularly in the Molenbeek neighborhood,” the Belgian federal prosecutor, Bernard Michel, said in February. [Continue reading…]

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Revelation on Brussels attackers fuels fears of new assaults

The New York Times reports: The announcement on Sunday that the plotters of last month’s Brussels terror attacks had originally intended to hit Paris again only heightened the concern among police and intelligence agencies that shadowy Islamic State networks could unleash new attacks at any time, not only in France and Belgium but in other European capitals.

As intelligence experts and officials took stock of what they have learned since the Nov. 13 assaults in and around Paris, which killed 130 people, several things have come into focus. The scale of the Islamic State’s operations in Europe are still not known, but they appear to be larger and more layered than investigators at first realized; if the Paris and Brussels attacks are any model, the plotters will rely on local criminal networks in addition to committed extremists.

Even as the United States, its allies and Russia have killed leaders of the Islamic State, and have rolled back some of the extremist organization’s gains on the battlefields of Iraq and Syria, the Islamic State appears to be posing a largely hidden and lethal threat across much of Europe. [Continue reading…]

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In Belgium, racism and discrimination is a larger problem than radicalization

The New York Times reports: Yves Goldstein makes no excuses for Belgium’s failure to find Salah Abdeslam and the other Islamic State recruits who attacked Paris and then bombed Brussels Airport and a subway station.

The problem is not Islam, he insists, but the negligence of government officials like himself in allowing self-contained ethnic ghettos to grow unchallenged, breeding anger, crime and radicalism among youth — a soup of grievances that suits Islamist recruiters.

“Our cities are facing a huge problem, maybe the largest since World War II,” Mr. Goldstein said. “How is it that people who were born here in Brussels, in Paris, can call heroes the people who commit violence and terror? That is the real question we’re facing.”

Friends who teach the equivalent of high school seniors in the predominantly Muslim districts of Molenbeek and Schaerbeek told him that “90 percent of their students, 17, 18 years old, called them heroes,” he said.

Mr. Goldstein, 38, grew up in Schaerbeek, the child of Jewish refugees from Nazism. Now a councilman from Schaerbeek, he is also chief of staff for the minister-president of the Brussels Capital Region. [Continue reading…]

The New York Times reports: To feel apart, even isolated, is not uncommon for a Muslim from Schaerbeek, the third-poorest commune in Belgium and one with a long history of racism.

More than Molenbeek, where many of the Paris and Brussels attackers lived, Schaerbeek is a mixed community with a sizable number of native Caucasian Belgians as well as Muslims from Turkey and Morocco.

Yet despite its heterogeneity, the groups still live in somewhat segregated communities.

Mustapha Chairi, a Schaerbeek native and now the head of the Collective Against Islamophobia in Belgium, remembers how when he was a boy, the mayor, Roger Nols, made no bones about his loathing for immigrants from North Africa.

In at least one election year, 1986, he donned ethnic Moroccan clothes, mounted a camel and rode to the central square to declare, “In 20 years all of Schaerbeek will look like this unless you vote for me,” Mr. Chairi recalled.

He stayed in office for 19 years. [Continue reading…]

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Does ISIS even have a European strategy?

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Benjamin H. Friedman writes: With the bombers dead and investigations just a week old, the motives behind last week’s bombings in Brussels’ airport and metro will remain murky for some time. Of course, reporters and terrorism analysts have offered lots of speculation, much of it focused on how the attacks serve the agenda of ISIS’s leaders. That approach, I believe, overstates ISIS’s coherence and wisdom. If “ISIS” means the would-be state in Syria in Iraq, plus affiliated groups and clandestine networks of sympathizers, then it doesn’t have a strategy; it has strategies, often foolish ones.

Statements claiming responsibility for the attack, attributed to ISIS’s leadership in Syria, blame Belgium for joining in the war in Syria and Iraq and threaten coalition members with similar treatment. The attack, in other words, was meant to coerce foreign powers to quit making war on ISIS.

Those statements are indications that ISIS’s leaders didn’t know the particulars of the attack in advance, let alone direct it. Like some prior ISIS’s claims of reasonability for attacks, the statements seem to crib from media reports; they arrived hours after attacks without any detail unavailable in public. By claiming that the airport attackers “opened fire” with “automatic rifles,” the statements even repeat errors in initial reporting. [Continue reading…]

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Investigators believe at least 22 suspects are still at large following Brussels and Paris attacks

The Wall Street Journal reports: At least 22 radical Islamists from Europe linked to the terror network behind the Brussels and Paris attacks are suspected to be still at large, putting security services on high alert as they rush to prevent Islamic State from striking again in the region.

Many of the fugitives have been involved in previous Islamic State plots, officials say, and almost all of them have spent months or years fighting in Syria.

Interviews and confidential court documents seen by The Wall Street Journal portray the fugitives as part of an extensive web of young men who developed a deep hatred of the West after embracing radical Islam at underground mosques and clandestine meetings in Molenbeek, a heavily Muslim district in the heart of Brussels. They have since become central to Islamic State’s plans to strike the West, according to investigators, who suspect the Brussels network is behind the movement of battle-hardened operatives from Syria to Europe.

“We see many plots and several cells that we now know are part of the same network,” said Jean-Charles Brisard, president of the Center for the Analysis of Terrorism, a Paris think tank. “They’re already here. The problem is how to find them.”

The 22 men investigators are scrutinizing include those prosecuted in absentia during a major terror trial in Belgium last year, as well as several with links to a foiled plot to kill Belgian police last year. But people familiar with investigations say they believe the reach of the Brussels network extends beyond the group to others from the city who went to Syria and their sympathizers who stayed behind. [Continue reading…]

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Report: The foreign fighters phenomenon in the EU – profiles, threats & policies

International Centre for Counter-Terrorism – The Hague reports: Despite the widespread media attention for foreign fighters in Europe, very little is known about the phenomenon itself, something also evidenced by the lack of a single foreign fighter definition across the EU.

In a study commissioned by the Netherlands National Coordinator for Security and Counterterrorism (NCTV), ICCT addresses this gap by analysing not only the numbers and characteristics of foreign fighters across the EU, but also how the Union and Member States assess the threat of foreign fighters as well as their policy responses regarding security, preventive and legislative measures. The Report also outlines a series of policy options aimed both at the EU and its Member States.

Findings include:

  • Of a total estimated 3,922 – 4,294 foreign fighters from EU Member States, around 30% have returned to their home countries.
  • A majority of around 2,838 foreign fighters come from just four countries: Belgium, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom, with Belgium having the highest per-capita FF contingent.
  • There is no clear-cut profile of a European foreign fighter. Data indicates that a majority originate from metropolitan areas, with many coming from the same neighbourhoods, that an average of 17% are female, and that the percentage of converts among foreign fighters ranges from 6% to 23%.
  • The radicalisation process of foreign fighters is reported to be short and often involves circles of friends radicalizing as a group and deciding to leave jointly for Syria and Iraq.

[Continue reading…]

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Frenchman plotting ‘imminent’ attack is charged with terrorism

The New York Times reports: A suspected Islamic State operative who was arrested last week had amassed a trove of guns and bomb-making equipment, including the type of explosive used in terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels, the French authorities announced on Wednesday, reinforcing fears that militants are planning additional assaults on Europe.

The suspect, Reda Kriket, a 34-year-old Frenchman, was arrested on Thursday afternoon in Boulogne-Billancourt, a western suburb of Paris. That evening, the authorities raided a fourth-floor apartment Mr. Kriket had rented under a fake name in Argenteuil, a northwestern suburb that was once a popular weekend getaway and a subject for Impressionist painters.

Inside the apartment, the authorities found “an arsenal of weapons and explosives of an unprecedented size,” which led them to believe Mr. Kriket had been planning an “imminent attack,” the Paris prosecutor, François Molins, said at a news conference on Wednesday evening, describing for the first time the scope of the plot.

The arsenal included explosive materials — among them TATP, which was used in suicide bombs that were set off in Paris on Nov. 13 and in Brussels on March 22 — along with Kalashnikov assault rifles, a submachine gun, pistols, ammunition, four boxes containing thousands of small steel balls, stolen French passports, brand-new cellphones, a tear-gas canister and two computers with instructions to make explosives.

A judge who focuses on terrorism cases charged Mr. Kriket on Wednesday with terrorist conspiracy, possession of weapons and explosives, and falsification of documents, among other offenses, Mr. Molins said.

Mr. Kriket had an extensive criminal record, with multiple convictions for robbery, possession of stolen goods and acts of violence, Mr. Molins added. [Continue reading…]

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Do all roads lead through Italy for ISIS?

The Daily Beast reports: Mohamed Lahlaoui was not supposed to be in Europe when he was arrested in Germany last week on terrorism charges. The 28-year-old Moroccan was deported from the northern Italian city of Brescia back in May 2014 after he violated the conditions of his house arrest, which he was serving for attempted murder, concealing an illegal weapon, and garden-variety drug charges.

But he apparently never left Europe. Or, if he did, it wasn’t much of a getaway, because traces of him in Belgium, France, and Germany date back to the summer he was deported. When Lahlaoui was arrested at a train station in Giessen, Germany, last week, his name wasn’t at the top of any terror watch list, but he was identified as persona non grata in Europe because of his Italian criminal record. Acting out of an abundance of vigilance, German police said they checked his cellphone and found a message from Khalid el-Bakraoui, one of the suicide-bomber brothers who blew himself up along with 20 passengers in a Brussels subway on March 22. The message was sent at 9:08 a.m., just three minutes before the bomb went off. It said, simply, “fin” — French for “the end.”

Now authorities are tying to connect the dots between Lahlaoui and a number of other terror suspects who seem to have an Italian connection. [Continue reading…]

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