The capture of the ISIS Paris master planner Salah Abdelsalem by Belgian anti-terror police, after four months on the run, was initially hailed as an enormous stroke of luck – that is until Tuesday, March 22. The high-profile Islamic State terrorist, who planned the triple attacks on a Paris stadium, bistro and concert hall, that left 130 people dead last November, had instructed jihadist bombers under his command to carry out deadly explosions at Brussels airport and subway on that day, while he was in custody.
He staged his capture as a trick to misdirect Belgian and French intelligence and anti-terror agencies and lull them into a state of false security.
Abdelsalem, 26, a French citizen of Moroccan origin, was the only survivor of the Paris attack five months ago. The other seven terrorists were killed, including his brother. He was finally run to ground on March 18 at his safe house in the Brussels district of Molenbeek, a notorious hotbed of jihads ideology, and taken in after a shootout with the police. The master terrorist had evaded capture by skipping across European borders, which proves little challenge for ISIS operatives on the move.
Three other suspects were also arrested in the Molenbeek raid.
French President Francois Hollande and Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel took turns congratulating each other at a joint press conference which they called immediately after the Abdelselam capture. They were certain that his interrogation would yield valuable information about the arcane workings of the ISIS web across Europe and bring to light future terror plots in good time.
But debkafile’s counterterrorism sources believe that Abdelsalem let himself be nabbed as part of a larger plot. Before he was captured, he had left instructions with a team of bombers for the attacks on Brussels international airport and the Maelbeek subway station near the European Union’s headquarters, with possibly more to come, on lines similar to the multiple assaults in Paris.
He relied on the French and Belgian leaders and their anti-terrorist advisers resting on their laurels, the while letting down their guard and missing the trap, before it snapped back in their faces four days later.
After the attacks, the Belgian prime minister realized that more terror might still be in store.
The Brussels twin terrorist hit was planned in detail. debkafile’s counterterrorism sources report that the two explosions at Brussels airport were caused by suicide bombers. The discovery later of an unexploded bomb belt indicated a terror team of three (see picture).
What happened to the third bomber?
Belgian authorities are trying to disguise the fact that, while one explosion was caused by a suicide bomber in the departure hall, a second terrorist was able to reached the tarmac and detonate his bomb belt near the airliners.
They may have beaten security by using an airport staff employee to smuggle the three bomb belts into the targeted areas and conceal them, allwoing the terrorists to come out clean from security checks. The third bomb belt may have been abandoned – either because the third terrorist failed to turn up, or he changed his mind at the last minute and and ran, after dropping it.
By Tuesday afternoon the death toll from the two attacks had climbed to 34 – 20 dead at the Metro station and 14 at Brussels airport, with scores of people injured, including reportedly two Israel passengers.
The scenes in the Belgian airport capital were chaotic. Terrified passengers fled in every direction in the absence of anyone in charge to provide information or guidance. Police tried to tell them to drop their hand luggage before escaping, but no one heeded them. Hundreds waited on the tarmac hopelessly for instructions until they were eventually bussed to a village outside the capital. They were stranded there, after all incoming and outgoing flights were cancelled and all public transport suspended.
Brussels, in a state of shock and confusion, found itself unwillingly dubbed the front line of Europe’s war on terror.