PARIS: France charged the main suspect in a foiled attack plot with membership of a terrorist organisation after police found an arsenal of weapons and explosives at his home.
The move comes as investigators stepped up efforts to smash a tangled web of Islamic State-linked extremists blamed for both the November Paris attacks and last week’s suicide bombings on Brussels airport and metro that killed 32 people.
French national Reda Kriket, 34, was arrested near Paris last week and a police raid on his apartment netted a cache of assault rifles, handguns and TATP, the highly volatile homemade explosive favoured by IS jihadists.
State prosecutor Francois Molins said Wednesday that “no specific target” had been identified for the foiled attack but that the cache of weapons showed an imminent act of “extreme violence” had likely been prevented.
Kriket’s arrest came just four months after the jihadist carnage that claimed 130 lives in Paris.
He had rented the apartment in the suburb of Argenteuil under a false identity last summer, the prosecutor said.
Another French suspect, 32-year-old Anis Bahri, was arrested in Rotterdam in the Netherlands on Sunday in connection with the new Paris plot and is fighting extradition to France.
Both Kriket and Bahri are believed to have travelled to Syria in late 2014 or early 2015, and since then between France, Belgium and the Netherlands, the French prosecutor said.
Two other suspects — Abderrahmane Ameroud, 38, and Rabah M., 34 — have been charged in Belgium over the foiled plot and will be held for another week, Belgium’s federal prosecutor said.
The arrests highlight the extensive links investigators are finding between French and Belgian Islamic State cells behind the Brussels and Paris attacks.
Kriket, who is linked to the suspected ringleader of the Paris attacks, was found guilty in absentia in Brussels in July of being part of a jihadist recruitment network and sentenced to 10 years in jail.
Among those who went to Syria through the network were Abdelhamid Abaaoud — the suspected ringleader of the November Paris onslaught — and another Paris attacker, Chakib Akrouh.
Investigations showed Kriket played a key role in financing the recruitment network with money from robberies and stolen goods.
Brussels airport said it would remain closed to passenger flights until at least late Thursday afternoon as the operator carries out further tests for a partial restart.
“The evaluation of the trial is still ongoing and will take at least till tomorrow afternoon. No flights till then,” the airport operator said Wednesday on Twitter.
The airport has been shut since suicide bombers Najim Laachraoui and Ibrahim El Bakraoui blew themselves up in the departure hall on March 22.
The mayor of the Brussels district of Molenbeek, Francoise Schepmans, meanwhile, said far-right extremists had been banned from holding a planned anti-Islam rally in the neighborhood after talks with police.
The impoverished immigrant neighbourhood has long been seen as a hotbed of Islamist extremism and the prime suspect in the Paris attacks was arrested there earlier this month.
Criticism of the Belgian authorities’ handling of the attacks probe has mounted after the sole suspect charged over the attacks was freed on Monday for lack of evidence.
Prosecutors had charged the suspect, named by media as Faycal Cheffou, with “terrorist murder” and were investigating whether he was the third airport attacker who fled after his bomb did not detonate.
But the hunt is now back on for the so-called “man in the hat”, seen in CCTV footage next to the two suicide bombers at the airport.
Investigators are looking for a man who goes by the name Naim Al Hamed, whose fingerprints were found at the apartment used by the Brussels airport bombers, but they do not know whether he is the “third man” in the attack or another fugitive.
Al Hamed has been linked to Salah Abdeslam, the key suspect in the Paris attacks, who was arrested in Brussels on March 18 after more than four months on the run.
Belgium has also been accused of missing a series of leads linking the Paris attacks to those behind the Brussels bombings.
In the most damning revelation, Turkey said Belgium ignored warnings from Ankara after it deported airport suicide bomber Bakraoui as a “terrorist fighter” last year following his arrest near the Syrian border. AFP