2016 Brussels terror attacks: Investigation overview
Nearly seven years since the 2016 Brussels terror attacks, the trial of ten male suspects will be launched in Belgium on 30 November. After a judicial investigation that took over three years, in September 2021 the Brussels indictment chamber referred ten suspects to Belgium’s Assize Court, which deals with the most serious cases.
The attacks at Brussels Airport and the Maelbeek metro station on 22 March 2016 claimed 32 lives and injured some 340 people. Suicide bombers Najim Laachraoui and Ibrahim El Bakraoui detonated their deadly explosives in the departure hall of Brussels Airport, while Khalid El Bakraoui carried out a suicide attack in a metro carriage in Maelbeek just over one hour later.
The attacks occurred four months after the 2015 Paris attacks and were executed by the same IS terrorist cell. In the interval between the attacks, Belgian and French security forces searched frantically for several members of the group and had already arrested a number of suspects. Thirteen suspects were detained in the weeks and months following the attacks, of whom ten were eventually referred to the Belgian Assize Court.
On 15 March 2016, just one week before the Brussels attacks, a house search on Driesstraat in the Brussels municipality of Forest sparked a shoot-out between police and three suspects. One of them, Algerian national Mohamed Belkaid (35), was killed while two others, Salah Abdeslam and Sofien Ayari, managed to escape. Both were captured shortly after on 18 March.
"Man with the hat"
Police arrested Mohamed Abrini, wanted since the 2015 Paris attacks, on 8 April in the Brussels municipality of Anderlecht. Abrini confessed to being the "man with the hat" seen on Brussels Airport surveillance footage shortly before Ibrahim El Bakraoui and Najim Laachraoui carried out their suicide attack in the airport departure hall. Abrini fled the scene, leaving behind a suitcase full of explosives. That morning, the three had taken a taxi from a flat in the Brussels municipality in Schaerbeek where they had been hiding and prepared the attacks in the preceding days and weeks.
On 8 April, police also arrested Ossama Krayem, until then only known by the false name "Naïm Al Hamed”. Krayem was filmed in the Brussels metro station Pétillon while fleetingly exchanging a few words with Khalid El Bakraoui, the man who carried out the suicide bombing in Maelbeek. Krayem claims he was also supposed to carry out a suicide attack at Maelbeek but backed out. He returned to a safe house in the Brussels municipality of Etterbeek where he and Khalid El Bakraoui had stayed in the lead-up to the attacks. He claims to have diluted the TATP explosive in his backpack with water before flushing it down the toilet in the safe house. Subsequent investigations found traces of TATP in the pipes of the toilet.
Bilal El Makhoukhi
Alongside Abrini and Krayem, Bilal El Makhoukhi (28) and the Rwandan national Hervé Bayingana Muhirwa (32) were apprehended on 8 April. El Makhoukhi was convicted in 2015 of supplying logistical assistance to terrorist organisations as one of 45 members of the Sharia4Belgium group that sent jihadists to Syria. He is suspected of having played a role in preparing the attacks, which he vehemently denies. He is believed to have visited the safe house in Schaerbeek on numerous occasions in the weeks before 22 March but claims he was unaware that an attack was being prepared.
El Makhoukhi’s DNA was also found on an empty package of batteries in the safe house in Etterbeek. Investigators suspect the batteries were used to make the bombs that detonated at Brussels Airport. Ibrahim El Bakraoui's audio will was found on a laptop thrown into a rubbish bin next to the safe house in Schaerbeek. On it, El Bakraoui mentions the name "Abou Imran", believed to have been El Makhoukhi’s nom de guerre during his stay in Syria in 2012.
Investigators suspect El Makhoukhi was meant to keep the terrorist cell's weapons after the attacks and pass them on to other would-be terrorists. The weapons are still missing today. A day before the attacks, suicide bomber Najim Laachraoui sent Syria-based emir Abou Ahmed an audio message in which he talks about putting "Abou Imran" in contact with Ahmed. He adds that "Imran" would provide information on where to find the weapons. During interrogations, El Makhoukhi scorned the suggestion that he is “Imran”.
After the attacks, El Makhoukhi enlisted the help of his childhood friend Hervé Bayingana Muhirwa to hide Osama Krayem and Mohamed Abrini in his flat on rue Tivoli in Laeken.
IS Secret Service
Ali El Haddad Asufi was arrested on 9 June 2016 after investigators analysed surveillance footage of the safe house in Etterbeek used by Khalid El Bakraoui and Ossama Krayem. The video recordings showed that Ali El Haddad Asufi helped Ibrahim El Bakraoui move in and visited many times in the following months.
Brothers Ibrahim (27) and Smail Farisi (31) were arrested on 11 April 2016. Smail Farisi rented the flat in Etterbeek which he lent to Khalid El Bakraoui. After the 22 March attack, the Farisi brothers emptied and thoroughly cleaned the flat.
Oussama Atar is a cousin of the El Bakraoui brothers and is believed to have been an important figure within the "secret service" of the Islamic State (IS) in Syria. He allegedly directed both the 2015 Paris attacks and 2016 Brussels attacks, as well as the attempted Thalys attack by Ayoub El Khazzani in August 2015, the foiled attack in Verviers in January 2015 and a failed attack on a church in Villejuif, France, on 19 April 2015. French secret services believe he was killed in an airstrike in Syria in November 2017 but his body was never found.
In January 2021, the Brussels chambers ruled that ten out of thirteen suspects will stand trial before the Belgian Assize Court. The ten defendants on trial are Salah Abdeslam, Oussama Atar, Mohamed Abrini, Sofien Ayari, Osama Krayem, Ali El Haddad Asufi, Bilal El Makhoukhi, Hervé Bayingana Muhirwa, and brothers Smail and Ibrahim Farisi. Three other suspects, Faycal C., Brahim Tabich and Youssef El Ajmi, were dropped from prosecution.
The Belgian Federal Prosecutor's Office requested to refer the Farisi brothers to the correctional court instead of the assize court. A number of the victims' lawyers joined in this request while other civil parties insisted on a single trial before the assize court. Smaïl Farisi's lawyer however, expressed his preference for an assize trial. On 17 September 2021, the indictment chamber confirmed the council chamber’s decision and referred both Farisi brothers to the assize court after all.
The damaged facade of Brussels Airport in Zaventem, Belgium. On 22 March 2016, two bombs exploded in the airport departure hall and a third was detonated in the Maelbeek metro station in Brussels. 32 people were killed and around 340 injured in the attacks © BELGA PHOTO YORICK JANSEN