BRUSSELS — At least two Americans were killed in the Brussels attacks that claimed at least 31 lives, a U.S. official said Friday as Secretary of State John Kerry made a somber visit to the heart of the European Union that was struck by Islamic State violence earlier this week.
Kerry gave no further detail about the identities or the number of the Americans who were killed. The U.S. official said that two Americans had been confirmed dead so far, and that there could be more. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive findings.
“The United States is praying and grieving with you for the loved ones of those cruelly taken from us, including Americans, and for the many who were injured in these despicable attacks,” Kerry said alongside Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel.
At least four Americans are known to have been missing. State Department spokesman Mark Toner said earlier this week that the U.S. Embassy was still working to account for all of its staff members in Belgium.
“We will not rest until we have eliminated your nihilistic beliefs and cowardice from the face of the Earth,” Kerry said, directing his remarks against Islamic State-connected attackers who have struck around the world.
Meanwhile, a new suspect in the attacks was identified as Naim al-Hamed, a 27-year-old Syrian man born in Hama, and described as “very dangerous, suspected of being armed,” according to a police notice first published Friday by the Belgian Derniere Heure news outlet.
Hamed was suspected of involvement in both attacks, but it was not immediately clear whether he was the elusive third attacker who authorities believe dropped a suitcase with explosives at the Brussels airport and then vanished.
French authorities said Friday that a man detained in a raid the previous night in the Paris suburb of Argenteuil is believed to have connections to Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the deceased ringleader of November’s Paris attacks that left 130 dead, the Associated Press reported, citing unnamed French officials. French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said that the man, identified in French media as 34-year-old Frenchman Reda Kriket, was “at the advanced stage” of plotting an attack on the country.
Cazeneuve said Thursday that there was no apparent link to Tuesday’s attacks in Brussels.
Belgian authorities have been scrambling to track down suspects who remain at large as officials confront accusations that they had failed to disrupt the plot that claimed dozens of lives this week.
It was not clear whether six people detained in Brussels on Thursday participated in the attacks, Belgian authorities said, nor is it known yet how many people were involved as it became clearer that the Brussels attacks had links to the November massacres in Paris.
[Suspect arrested in Brussels attack]
Meanwhile, police pressed ahead with a manhunt for a suspected accomplice who is believed to have fled Tuesday’s attack at Brussels Airport.
The French newspaper Le Monde and the Belgian broadcaster RTBF reported that video monitors had captured images of another possible accomplice, who is believed to have slipped away on the Brussels subway. The report could not be immediately confirmed.
Criticism has also been leveled at the Dutch government, which on Thursday released a letter from Turkish authorities announcing their decision to deport Ibrahim el-Bakraoui, 29, to the Netherlands in July, after he was apparently detained at the Turkey-Syria border.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had said Wednesday that Turkey explicitly warned Dutch authorities that Bakraoui, who would become one of the airport suicide bombers, was “a foreign terrorist fighter.”
But the letter does not explain why Bakraoui was deported, and Dutch Justice Minister Ard van der Steur said Turkey did not explain its decision. Because Bakraoui was not on any watch lists at the time and because he had a valid Belgian passport, van der Steur said, “there was no reason to take any action.”
In a sign of the intense pressure on Belgian authorities after what are widely regarded as a host of security failures in the lead-up to Tuesday’s attacks, the country’s interior and justice ministers offered to resign Thursday, according to Belgian news media reports.
Both Interior Minister Jan Jambon and Justice Minister Koen Geens have come under criticism for their departments’ inability to disrupt the terrorist cell before it struck, despite links between the Brussels plotters and the attackers in Paris in November.
The Brussels attackers had been on authorities’ radar. Bakraoui’s brother, Khalid el-Bakraoui, 27, who is believed to have been the suicide bomber on the Brussels subway car, had even been subject to an international arrest warrant. The Belgian prosecutor’s office said Thursday that the warrant was issued Dec. 11 and that he was wanted for using a false name to rent an apartment in the Belgian city of Charleroi that was used as a hideout for the Paris attackers.
A photo, released to Turkish media Thursday, showed a police mug shot of the elder Bakraoui – smiling and unshaven, wearing a dark T-shirt – prior to his deportation to the Netherlands in July.
A variety of personal details about the bombmaker trickled out Thursday. Najim Laachraoui, hailed in an Islamic State video for devising the explosive packages that killed 31 people in Brussels, had attended Catholic school, and his younger brother has become an international taekwondo competitor.
Yet a news conference Thursday with the bombmaker’s brother and an interview with the director of the Catholic school did little to shed light on what led Laachraoui, described as a good student and “kind and intelligent” brother, down the path so many others have followed to violent extremism.
The Catholic school in the ethnically mixed Brussels neighborhood of Schaerbeek welcomed non-Catholics. “He was a good student,” recalled Veronica Pellegrini, the director of the Institut de la Sainte-Famille d’Helmet. Pellegrini said he spent six years at the school and studied humanities.
In an interview, Pellegrini said the school never asks the students what religion they observe. And she said that the school had not heard from Laachraoui since he graduated in 2009.
Laachraoui’s brother Mourad, a well-known athlete for his taekwondo skills, said that while his family was a practicing Muslim family, he did not notice any changes in his brother’s behavior.
After Najim left for Syria, Mourad said that tried to find him and get him to return. He tried using Facebook, but Najim stopped using his real name. Their parents called the police in 2013 and saw police again in December after the Paris attacks.
Mourad said he felt sorrow for the victims of the bombings. Asked about his sports career, he said: “I want to continue my sports. I am fighting. I have always been fighting and I will continue fighting.” As for his younger brothers and Syria, he said, “I am now the oldest one, and I will prevent the others from going.”
Najim Laachraoui’s DNA was found in a Brussels apartment raided last week. The discovery of a militant cell there eventually led to the arrest of Salah Abdeslam last Friday. Abdeslam is believed to have been involved in logistics for the Paris massacres, which claimed 130 lives.