Najim Laachraoui: Belgian police launch manhunt for suspect who could have made suicide belts for Paris attacks

Police appeal to the public for sightings of the 24-year-old

Belgian police have launched a manhunt for the man who might have made the suicide belts for last November’s Paris attackers, as investigators begin to follow up leads made after the capture of the fugitive Salah Abdeslam. 

Police appealed to the public for sightings of Najim Laachraoui, 24, and published a grainy photograph from what they said was a false ID for the suspect, under the name Soufiane Kayal.

Laachraoui’s DNA was found in a house in Auvelais, south Belgium, as well as in a flat in the Brussels district of Schaerbeek. Sources have revealed that his DNA was also found on at least two suicide belts used in Paris: one which was set off at the Bataclan theatre, and another used at the Stade de France, suggesting he not only handled them but may even have built them.

Laachraoui is thought to have studied electro-mechanical engineering at a Catholic high school in Schaerbeek, the Institut de la Sainte-Famille d’helmet, graduating in 2012. He was already known to be in Syria in 2013, and was the subject of an international arrest warrant in 2014.

He was one of two men using fake Belgian identity cards who were with Abdeslam in a car checked by Hungarian police last September. The other man in that car was Mohamed Belkaid, also known as Samir Bouzid, a 35-year-old Algerian who was killed in a police raid on a house in Brussels on 15 March. Investigators suspect both Laachraoui and Belkaid spoke to the other terrorists by phone on the night of the Paris attacks. 

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A photofit released by Belgium Federal Police shows Soufiane Kayal, the false identity of the suspect Najim Laachraoui

The Belgian federal prosecutor Frédéric van Leeuw said he was “still far from solving the puzzle” of the Paris attacks. “We have quite a few pieces of the puzzle and in the last few days several pieces have found their place,” he said, adding that he did not know the “exact path” taken by Abdeslam between the time he returned to Brussels, and his capture in the Molenbeek neighbourhood where he grew up.

Abdeslam’s lawyer, Sven Mary, said his client was co-operating with authorities and would eventually be transferred to France. “He is collaborating. He is communicating. He is not maintaining his right to remain silent,” Mr Mary told the Belgian public broadcaster RTBF. “I think that Salah Abdeslam is of prime importance for this investigation. I would even say he is worth his weight in gold.”

Mr Mary also said Abdeslam was relieved that he was caught after four months on the run, confirming reports that his first words after his arrest were, “I’m happy it’s over. I couldn’t take it any more.”

Meanwhile, the high-security prison in Bruges where Abdeslam is being held in solitary confinement is the same one from which three inmates made a helicopter escape in 2009. 

The prison, with two moats, holds two of Abdeslam’s acquaintances: Mehdi Nemmouche, who killed four people in an attack on the Jewish Museum in Brussels in 2014; and Mohamed Amri, who drove to Paris on 14 November, the day after the attacks, to bring Abdeslam back to Brussels.

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