The Islamist extremists who carried out terror attacks in Paris and Brussels had originally planned to target the European soccer championships due to take place across France this summer, according to a French newspaper.
The opening match and final are to be held at the French capital’s Stade de France, one of three targets hit during the Paris attacks in November, along with a concert hall and nearby nightspots.
The cell changed direction after the arrest last month of Salah Abdeslam, suspected as a key figure in the Paris attacks, during which 130 people were killed and hundreds more injured, Liberation reported Sunday.
Abdeslam is suspected of playing at least a logistical role in the Paris attacks but escaped and fled back to Brussels, eluding a vast police dragnet for four months.
Liberation said the claims about targeting Euro 2016, due to held from June 10-July 10, were made by Mohammad Abrini during interrogation by Belgian investigators.
Abrini, arrested on Friday, had already been indicted over the Paris attacks and has been charged with “terrorist murders” in connection with last month’s carnage in Brussels, Belgium’s federal prosecutor said on Sunday.
Suspected of having left a bag of explosives at Brussels airport, Abrini reportedly confessed to being “the man in the hat” caught on an airport video. Three suicide bombers exploded themselves at the airport and metro station, killing 32.
The group’s objective was to strike France again, the Belgian federal prosecutor revealed, but the speed of the police investigation prompted them to “decide hastily” to hit Brussels.
A source in the French police told the newspaper, “It’s not a scoop to learn that terrorists want to strike during the Euro.” Security forces were constantly developing attack scenarios and determining how to respond, said the source. “If Abrini’s statements are correct, it just confirms that Belgium is an operational rear base to watch even more intensely,” the source said. “Networks and jihadi cells have been meeting there and regrouping constantly over the past ten years.”
Having discovered Abrini’s address from the taxi driver who ferried him to Brussels airport, along with the suicide bombers Ibrahim El Bakraoui and Mohamed Najim Laachraoui, police found not only a huge cache of explosives, Liberation reported, but a computer belonging to the El Bakraoui brothers in a nearby trash can that was evidently intended to be picked up by an accomplice.
The computer revealed the contents of a discussion apparently between El Bakraoui and an as-yet unidentified individual in Syria. “It’s a real brainstorming session,” an anti-terrorist source told Liberation. “They openly plan operations, discuss when they should hit, where, if all the commandos will need to die together…”
The material provided clear evidence, the source continued, “that this cell continued to maintain links with Syria, to be advised and directed by the Caliphate [Islamic State],” and that was in spite of the death of Abdelhamid Abaaoud — said to have played a key role in Paris and considered by many to be the head of the group.
Another file on the computer mentioned possible attacks in La Defense, a business district in Paris, and against the radical Catholic group Civitas, the source added.