A key suspect in the Paris and Brussels Islamist attacks has claimed he backed out at the last minute from detonating a suicide vest at a Belgian airport because he "wouldn't hurt a fly", according to security sources. Mohamed Abrini, the so called "Man in the Hat" seen at the Zaventem airport bombing, is considered by authorities all over Europe as a very dangerous Islamic State (Isis/Daesh) militant involved in the killing of more than 150 people in France and Belgium.
During questioning, however, the 31-year-old claimed to be a kind man and maintained he played only a marginal role in the attacks. The Belgian-Moroccan national told investigators he was forced to follow IS members Ibrahim el-Bakraoui and Najim Laachraoui to the Brussels airport wearing an explosive device on 22 March, security sources told Sudpresse.
He claimed el-Bakraoui, 29, decided the trio should target check-in desks for flights headed to the US, Russia and Israel. But after his two accomplices set off their devices he couldn't bring himself to do the same. He dumped his suicide vest and fled towards central Brussels.
According to the source, Abrini put his change of mind down to the lack of previous combat experience. "I've never been in Syria, I wouldn't hurt a fly", he told police, according to Sudpresse.
Authorities were said to be treating the claim with scepticism. Abrini is one of the few surviving members of the jihadi network behind the massacres in the French and Belgian capitals and has a clear interest in playing down his role in the attacks.
He was captured in Anderlecht on 8 April after almost five months at large. Detectives are reportedly convinced that Abrini held a senior position within the cell and see him as an even more dangerous individual than his fugitive companion, Salah Abdeslam. "We have long thought he was pulling the strings. He was more the type to act in the shadows," another source close to the investigation told Le Soir newspaper.
The pair went on the run shortly after the 13 November bombings and shootings in Paris. Two days earlier they had been seen together at a petrol station in a car that was later used in the attacks. Since he was arrested on 18 March, Abdeslam is also understood to have maintained he developed cold feet in November, dumping his suicide vest and fleeing.
Abrini's claim was reported a day after IS identified el-Bakraoui's brother Khalid as the ringleader of the Brussels bombings. The jihadi group's propaganda magazine Dabiq said Khalid, 27, was a key figure in the plotting and execution of both the November and March attacks, as, with his brother, he set up safe houses and gathered explosives and weapons. He blew himself up at the Maelbeek metro station in central Brussels killing 16 people.