BRUSSELS (March 23, 2016) — One person has been arrested after the bloody terrorist attacks in Belgium, though the country’s federal prosecutor said that the man believed to have been the third person taking part directly in the Brussels airport attack remains on the run.
Prosecutor Frederic Van Leeuw identified Brahim El Barkoui as one of the airport suicide bombers and his brother, Khalid El Bakroui, as the man behind the deadly suicide blast near the Maelbeek metro station.
The metro bombing was actually deadliest, killing at least 20 of the 31 total slain in the two Tuesday attacks. Another 271 people were wounded, the prosecutor said.
Still, that could have been different had a third bomb — described as the “heaviest” by Van Leeuw — had gone off at the airport.
The first two explosives at the airport went off within 37 seconds of each other shortly before 8 a.m. Tuesday, according to the prosecutor. The third suspect — the one who is still at large — left another bomb that did not explode around that time. Instead, Van Leeuw said, authorities detonated it in a controlled explosion that did not hurt anyone.
The El Bakraoui brothers were known to police, but for organized crime, not for acts of terrorism, according to state broadcaster RTBF.
It wasn’t immediately clear if one or both of them was in a picture released Tuesday by authorities, showing three men pushing luggage carts through the airport. The subway attack took place about an hour later.
Investigators believe the third man pictured — wearing light-colored clothing and a hat — planted a bomb at the airport, then left in a move that appeared to be planned, two U.S. officials said.
Where did he go? And what was he planning to do next?
Those are some of the many looming questions facing investigators Wednesday.
Expert: Identifying brothers could spur investigators
Another question is the depth of the connection between what happened Tuesday in Brussels and what happened four months earlier in Paris, where 130 people died in a terrorist massacre inside a concert hall, in cafes and restaurants and on the city’s streets.
The more authorities dig, the deeper those connections appear to be: Investigators know that several of the Paris attackers had spent time in Belgium. One of them was Salah Abdeslam, who has been identified as the lone member of the core group of eight Paris attackers to survive.
Abdeslam is still alive but now in custody following a gun-battle with police Friday in Brussels. Belgian officials later said that the 26-year-old may have been helping plan new attacks at the time of his capture.
That raid was one of several conducted by police last week in Belgium in connection with the Paris attacks. One of them was at a Brussels apartment that had been rented by Khalid El Bakraoui — who’s now been identified as the Brussels subway suicide bomber — according to the Belgian security source.
He and his brother are both suspected of having ties to the November 13 carnage in the French capital, the same source said.
Regardless of what exactly Bakraoui brothers did, identifying them should help spring the investigation forward, says Cedric Leighton, a CNN military analyst and the former deputy director for the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
“You can start basically peeling back the onion,” he told CNN. “Hopefully what it will do is it will speed up the process by which they can actually look at all of the different elements of this and possibly roll up some more suspects.”
Three suspects, two explosions and a taxi driver
Brussels Airport is closed through Thursday, at least, as investigators continue to comb through any evidence and others try to clean up the blood and debris.
Authorities are looking for more things like the Kalashnikov assault rifle reportedly found in the international airport’s departure hall, where the two bombs went off.
Another focus is talking to witnesses — the most important so far possibly being a taxi driver who called police shortly after seeing the security image authorities released showing the suspected killers.
That taxi driver said he believes he drove the trio to the airport. Once there, he told authorities his passengers would not allow him to unload the suitcases from the cab. He also led investigators to where he picked the three men up in the northeast Brussels area of Schaerbeek — which, according to officials, led to a police raid there.
Investigators found a nail bomb, chemical products and an ISIS flag during a house search in the northeast Brussels area of Schaerbeek, Belgium’s federal prosecutor said in a statement.
Forensic teams are now scouring an apartment building in that neighborhood and have been seen carrying out bags of evidence, according to CNN’s Frederik Pleitgen, who was reporting from just outside the building.
Their work continued into the night.
Putting the pieces back together
Determining what type of explosives were used will be crucial, according to CNN National Security Analyst Peter Bergen.
French prosecutors have said that the bombs used in the November Paris attacks were made from triacetone triperoxide, or TATP.
If the same type of bombs were used in Paris and Brussels, that would be another key clue linking the two attacks.
“Such bombs have been a signature of jihadist terrorists in the West for more than a decade because the materials are so easy to acquire, unlike military-grade explosives, which are tightly controlled in much of the West,” Bergen said.
TATP-based bombs require technical know-how and bulk purchases of hydrogen peroxide or hair bleach. That helps authorities narrow down potential bomb-making suspects, because making the explosives can sometimes bleach hair. So authorities can identify bomb-makers in part by recognizing unusually bleached hair or asking sellers to report any suspiciously large purchases of hydrogen peroxide.
Dearth of Maelbeek information
While authorities have been able to move quickly on intelligence from the airport attacks, very little has been publicly revealed about the bombing at the Maelbeek metro station.
Coosemans, the Het Nieuwsblad reporter, says that’s because there isn’t as much surveillance there, compared with the airport.
“We just know less about the Maelbeek attack because we don’t have pictures there,” he told CNN. “The police know less about Maelbeek.”
Unraveling the network
Two senior U.S. officials told CNN they believe the Belgium attack is tied to the same network as terror suspect Abdeslam. ISIS has claimed responsibility for the attack.
And the “working assumption” in Belgium is that the attackers came from the network behind the Paris attack, Belgian security sources said. However, they cautioned it is very early in the latest investigation.
Intelligence sharing will be very important, says Steve Moore, a CNN law enforcement contributor.
“They obviously have some information. They don’t know if they’re looking at one cell or a series of cells. And so now it’s time to get all around at the same table and exchange information,” he said. “If you can get them all to use the same currency, I cannot believe that you can’t get them all to share intelligence.”