BRUSSELS (Reuters) - A Moroccan national who attempted an attack on Brussels’ Central Station is suspected of supporting Islamic State militants, prosecutors said on Wednesday, a day after the man tried to detonate a suitcase bomb packed with nails and gas bottles.
In an abortive attack that Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel said could have been far worse, the man likely made the bomb at his home in the Brussels borough of Molenbeek, a known hotbed of radicalized Muslims, investigators said.
“There are also indications that the suspect had sympathies for the terrorist organization IS,” the prosecutors said in a statement, using an acronym for Islamic State.
While little is known about the dead man, who was shot by a soldier on Tuesday evening, any confirmed militant links could fit it into a pattern of recent attacks in European cities claimed by IS, including in London, Paris and Berlin.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility on Wednesday.
Molenbeek, a poor borough with a big Moroccan Muslim population, gained notoriety after an Islamic State cell based there mounted suicide attacks on Paris in November 2015 that killed 130 people. Associates of that group attacked Brussels itself four months later, killing 32 people.
A counter-terrorism prosecutor said the man, who a security source named as Oussama Zariouh and was identified officially as O.Z., was a 36-year-old Moroccan citizen.
He set off his bomb on a crowded station concourse below ground at 8:44 p.m. (2.44 p.m. ET), prosecutor Eric Van Der Sypt said. Walking up to some passengers, “he grabbed his suitcase, while shouting and causing a partial explosion. Fortunately, nobody was hurt,” Van Der Sypt said.
The suitcase, later found to contain nails and gas bottles, caught fire and then detonated a second time more violently as the man ran downstairs to the platforms.
He then ran back up to the concourse where commuters had been milling around and rushed toward a soldier shouting “Allahu akbar” - God is greatest, in Arabic. The soldier, part of a routine patrol, shot him several times. Bomb disposal experts checked the body and found he was not carrying more explosives.
Police raided the man’s home overnight, Van Der Sypt said.
Molenbeek Mayor Francoise Schepmans told reporters that Zariouh was on police files over a drug case last year and was divorced. Bruno Struys, a Belgian author who writes on Islamist militants, said Zariouh had lived in Belgium since 2002, was married from 2004-2007 and moved to Molenbeek in 2013.
His Facebook page, which had not been updated in a year, showed a man in his 30s posing regularly for selfies, alone at the wheel of the same car. It said he was self-employed, single, came from Nador on Morocco’s Mediterranean coast and graduated from the nearby university at Oujda in 2002.
Posts on the page showed an interest in Islamic charity but no obvious support for militant organizations. Along with Arab musicians, he posted a liking for Canadian pop diva Celine Dion.
Prime Minister Michel insisted that Belgium, which has been the most fertile European recruiting ground for Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, would not bow to threats that have seen combat troops become a permanent fixture at public spaces in Brussels.
“We will not let ourselves be intimidated,” Michel said. “We will go on living our lives as normal.”
The Belgian capital, home to the headquarters of NATO and the European Union, took a heavy hit to its tourist industry after last year’s deadly attacks at Brussels airport and in the Brussels metro.
In Tuesday’s incident, visitors and residents out enjoying a hot summer’s evening on the ornate Renaissance town square, the Grand Place, close to Central Station, were cleared quickly away by police.
Smoke billowed through the 1930s station’s marble halls, sending people fleeing, well aware of last year’s attacks at Brussels airport and on the metro, as well as of a string of Islamic State-inspired assaults, most recently in Britain.
“Such isolated acts will continue in Brussels, in Paris and elsewhere. It’s inevitable,” Brussels security consultant Claude Moniquet, a former French agent, told broadcaster RTL.
With Islamic State under pressure in Syria, he said, attacks in Europe may increase, though many would be by “amateurs”.
Witness Nicolas Van Herrewegen, a rail worker, told Reuters: “He was talking about the jihadists and all that and then at some point he shouted: ‘Allahu akbar’ and blew up the little suitcase he had next to him. People just took off.”
Remy Bonnaffe, a 23-year-old lawyer who was waiting for a train home, told Reuters: “I think we had some luck tonight.”
Additional reporting by Clement Rossignol, Francesco Guarascio, Jan Strupczewski, Charlotte Steenackers and Alastair Macdonald and Robin Emmott in Brussels and Samia Errazzouki in Rabat; writing by Alastair Macdonald; editing by Mark Heinrich