By Peter Spiegel
March 29, 2016. Brussels briefing by the FT.
“…an investigating judge ordered the man, Fayçal Cheffou, released yesterday after the initial evidence he was the third airport conspirator could not be corroborated by DNA and fingerprints. Instead, investigators are back where they started…”
What else could possibly go wrong? After days of revelations that Belgian intelligence had all three Brussels suicide bombers on their radar — or at least should have had them on their radar — well before they detonated their explosives, authorities seemed to be able to claim one significant victory: less than 48 hours after the attacks, they netted the last remaining big fish. The plotter known as the “man in white” or the “man in the hat” because of the cream-coloured jacket and floppy headwear he was wearing in Brussels airport CCTV footage was captured on Thursday evening right in front of the federal prosecutors office. Or so prosecutors thought.
Instead, an investigating judge ordered the man, Fayçal Cheffou, released yesterday after the initial evidence he was the third airport conspirator could not be corroborated by DNA and fingerprints. Instead, investigators are back where they started, appealing to the public for information about the man who appears in the grainy CCTV pictures next to the two already identified as airport bombers, Ibrahim El Bakraoui and Najim Laachraoui. After only releasing stills of the footage last week, Belgian federal police yesterday decided to put out the actual video on YouTube, showing the “man in white” nonchalantly pushing his luggage cart through the airport’s departure hall as he casually chats with Bakraoui and Laachraoui. The suitcase bomb on his cart never detonated, and he is believed to have fled the scene.
Belgian officials defended themselves by insisting they never publicly named Mr Cheffou as the “man in white”. But they had made clear it was their operating assumption, particularly after, as local media reported, the taxi driver who unwittingly drove the three plotters to the airport on Tuesday morning identified him from a photo lineup.
Belgian investigators still have five men in custody who have been picked up since the bombings, but there are few indications that any of them are suspected of being the “man in white”. Unlike Mr Cheffou, none of them have been charged with terrorist murders — instead, they’re being held on the lesser charge of participating in the activities of a terrorist group — and at least one of them is known to have been a suspect in an entirely different crime (a Paris plot broken up last week by French police).
The release could hardly have come at a worse time. On top of the heat the Belgian government has faced for intelligence failures, they are now in the midst of a very Belgian political brawl, where Francophone officials in the capital are blaming Flemish leaders in the north of the country for knowingly allowing far-right football hooligans to descend on the city and make their way to an otherwise peaceful “march against fear” on Sunday.
All the miscues would border on the farcical if not for the reminder of what was at stake: health minister Maggie De Block announced yesterday that four of the wounded died in hospital, taking the death toll to 35. She later said that 96 victims remained in hospital, and authorities said about half of those remain in critical condition.