RABAT, Morocco – Moroccan police have arrested a Belgian man of Moroccan descent, saying he is linked to the Islamic State group and had a “direct relationship” to the attackers who killed 130 people in Paris two months ago, the Interior Ministry said Monday.
The man had travelled to Syria with one of the Paris suicide bombers, where he received military training and built relationships with IS field commanders, “including the mastermind” of the Paris attacks, and others who threatened attacks in France and Belgium, the ministry said in a statement.
The statement identified the suspect only by the initials J.A., and didn’t explain his suspected relationship to the Paris attackers.
But Belgian federal prosecutor Eric Van der Sypt told The Associated Press the suspect’s name is Gelel Attar, a dual Belgian-Moroccan national previously convicted in Belgium of involvement with a terrorist group. The letters G and J are represented by the same letter in Arabic script.
Several of the Islamic extremists who targeted a Paris rock concert, stadium and cafes on Nov. 13 had Moroccan origins and links to Belgium.
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The Moroccan ministry said in a statement that the man was arrested Friday in the town of Mohammedia, near Casablanca, after travelling through Turkey, Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium. It said the suspect is under investigation.
At least one of the Paris attackers remains at large.
Morocco has emerged as a key ally for European investigators trying to piece together the geography of the Nov. 13 attacks. The head of Morocco’s Central Bureau of Judicial Investigations, dubbed the “Moroccan FBI,” told the AP in a recent interview that his country put French and Belgian police on the trail of the network behind the Paris attacks.
Several of the attackers lived in the Brussels neighbourhood of Molenbeek, home to many immigrants of Moroccan descent.
Last July, a Brussels court found 30 people guilty of involvement in an operation to recruit foreign fighters for Syria. Some were already in Syria when the trial took place.
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Among them: Abdelhamid Abaaoud, ringleader of the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, and Chakib Akrouh, a fellow resident of Molenbeek identified last week as the suicide bomber who blew himself up inside the suburban Paris home in which Abaaoud and his female cousin attempted in vain to hide out from police.
Van der Sypt told the AP Attar was convicted in absentia of taking part in the activities of a terrorist group and sentenced to five years in prison.
Pieter Van Ostaeyen, who monitors the activities of Belgian jihadis and extremists, said Attar, 26, was also from Molenbeek, and that he left Belgium for Syria on Jan. 4, 2013 in the company of Akrouh. He reportedly returned to Belgium that May 28, then travelled to Morocco. Despite being arrested there, he managed to return to Syria, Van Ostaeyen said.
He said Attar also used the name Abou Ibrahim.