Brussels shooting suspect trained in Syria, Paris prosecutor says

A Frenchman arrested in connection with a shooting last week that left four people dead at the Jewish Museum in Brussels spent more than a year training in Syria, Paris public prosecutor François Molins said on Sunday.

Photo: AFP

The suspect has been arrested on suspicion of murder and attempted murder in connection with a terrorist enterprise, a judicial source said.

Mehdi Nemmouche, 29, was detained by customs officials at a bus station in the southern French city of Marseille on Friday when he arrived aboard a coach coming from Amsterdam via Brussels. Officials said a customs check revealed that he was carrying a Kalashnikov automatic rifle, a gun with ammunition as well as a miniature video camera.

Molins told a press conference that the suspect was a "repeat offender" who had spent more than a year training in Syria. His gun was wrapped in a sheet scrawled with the name of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) – an Islamist group active in Syria as well as Iraq – when he was detained.

"During his last stay in jail he was noticed for extremist [Islamist] proselytism," Molins said. "On December 31, 2012, three weeks after he was freed, he travelled to Syria."

"He spent over a year in Syria, where he seems to have joined the ranks of combatant groups, jihadist terrorist groups."   

A video seized during his arrest implicates Nemmouche in the shooting, Molins said.

The unseen cameraman films an array of weapons, explaining in a voiceover that he attached a GoPro camera to his bag to record the shooting rampage but that it had not worked properly.

Originally from Roubaix in northern France, Nemmouche was already known to the French domestic intelligence agency the DGSI, sources close to the investigation said.

He is being questioned by the DGSI, which can hold him for up to 96 hours (until Tuesday) or 144 hours (to Thursday) if investigators feel he poses an imminent terrorist threat.

French President François Hollande said the suspect was "arrested as soon as he set foot in France".

The homes of two of Nemmouche's family members were also reportedly searched on Sunday.

His family expressed surprise at the allegations against him. "He is nice, intelligent, educated, and has done a year at university," Nemmouche's aunt told reporters, adding that the family was "very shocked".

She said Nemmouche had been raised in a foster home and then by his grandmother, adding that the family lost contact with him after he was sent to prison.

"He never went to the mosque or spoke of religion," she said.

Homegrown jihadists

Last week, Belgian police released a video of the museum attack, in which the suspect can be seen entering the museum carrying two heavy black bags from which he then pulls a Kalashnikov automatic rifle and opens fire. The man’s face is not clear in the footage as his head is covered by a gray cap.

An Israeli couple, a French woman and a Belgian man died in the shooting.

Belgian authorities have declined to say whether the attack was linked to anti-Semitism, though French President François Hollande said last week he had no doubt about the “anti-Semitic character” of the shootings.

At a separate news conference in Brussels on Sunday, Belgian federal prosecutor Frederic Van Leeuw warned of the wider threat posed by radicalised Europeans returning from Syria.

“The new elements in this investigation draw attention once more to the problem of the returnees – in other words, the people going to Syria to participate in combat and return afterward to our country,'' he said. “All European countries are confronted at this moment with this problem.''

Hollande vowed Sunday to “fight'' homegrown radicals who come home from Syria with plans to carry out attacks.

The French government recently introduced new measures to try to stop disaffected youths from becoming radicalised and created a "hotline" for the friends and family of would-be jihadists seeking to travel to Syria.

Hollande said those efforts would be “amplified'' in the coming months.

“The whole government is mobilised to follow the jihadists, and prevent them from being able to cause harm'' when they come home to France or elsewhere in Europe, Hollande said on an official visit to Normandy.

French police arrested six people in May as part of an operation targeting France-based jihadists suspected of travelling to fight in Syria's civil war.

It is estimated that hundreds of French and Belgian nationals are seeking to or have travelled to Syria to join the Islamist groups fighting against Bashar al-Assad's regime.

In February FRANCE 24 featured the exclusive testimony of a 27-year-old Frenchman who left his Paris home along with his wife and her two young daughters to join a jihadist group in Syria.

The French interior ministry estimated in April that nearly 700 French citizens or residents have made their way into Syria since the conflict began.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP, AP and REUTERS)

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