Mehdi Nemmouche, 29, the jihadi arrested Friday, May 30, at Marseille bus station, carried in his luggage guns and ammunition of the types used to murder four people, including the Israeli couple Mira and Emmanuel Riva, at the Jewish Museum in Brussels on May 24.
Nemmouche was described at simultaneous news conferences in Paris and Brussels Sunday, June 1, as an activist in Islamist extremist groups, who spent most of 2013 fighting in Syria and was under the close watch of French security agencies.
According to one source, the suspect, who is of Algerian origin, fought in Syria with the Islamist State of Iraq and Levant (ISIS), whose commander, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, frequently threatens to carry his jihad into the US and Europe.
If Nemouche’s guilt is proven, he will be the first European Islamist who after serving in Syria committed an act of terrorism on his return to Europe.
That would be the most disturbing news about this episode – not just for Jews in those countries and Israel, but it would bear out the worst fears voiced of late by Western governments, that the growing numbers of their nationals fighting in Syria will return home armed with terrorist motivation and skills.
Nemmouche was arrested Friday in a customs inspection at the Saint-Charles bus station in Marseille when he arrived on a bus from Amsterdam via Brussels. His home town of Roubaix in northern France is no more than 100 km from the Belgian capital.
So far he has kept silent under questioning. The AK-47 Kalashnikov rifle, ammunition and revolver found on him will be subjected to ballistic tests to establish whether they were used in the murders in Belgium.
Also in his luggage was a GoPro portable camera, which is also being checked for content. According to the Belgian federal prosecutor, a video was found too, showing him claiming responsibility for the attack “on the Jews.”
There was also a large bundle of press clippings covering the Brussels attack.
If indeed Nemmouche was the shooter, it is hard to explain why he spent the next five days in Brussels although he knew that every policeman was looking for him. That is one enigma.
Neither he nor the two heavy pieces of luggage he carried on the bus to Marseilles were searched when the bus departed, or when it crossed the Belgian-French border, although there was a manhunt on for the Brussels killer.
From the Marseilles station, the suspect was driven to the French police counter-terrorism center at Levallois-Perret near Paris and will remain in detention until Thursday, June 5. Depending on the evidence against him, he may be brought before a judge for further remand in custody – or freed. He is not yet cooperating with the inquiry.
Nemmouche had a past record of theft and jail time. According to his record, he never stayed in one place for long and was constantly on the move. Before his year in Syria, he was known to have traveled to Turkey, Lebanon, Belgium and Britain among other places. From Marseilles, he planned to leave for Algeria.
His constant travels point to a further line of inquiry, that he served as bagman for Islamist terrorist organizations and was paid to ferry smuggled weapons, ammo, funds and drugs among various cells. In Syria, too, it is suspected that his main employment was to smuggle arms in from Turkey and Lebanon for the Islamist militias fighting Bashar Assad.
If that was his role, then the suspect may not have been the lead perpetrator in the Brussels museum attack but an accessory hired to pick up the weapons and other incriminating evidence from the killer as he fled the scene.
Nemmouche may even be just a decoy, and the real murder weapons and evidence long gone with the prepetrator. Even so, his interrogators may hope to have caught a big fish with valuable information about his contacts and the terrorist networks who hired him.
But he is unlikely to have much to give away. His contacts will be nameless parties whom never met face to face. The goods he was paid to deliver will have been left at secret pick-ups that were used just once. And the Brussels killer will not have stayed in West Europe. He will have got away clean and taken a new identity.