A French former jihadist in Syria has been arrested over the fatal shooting of three people at the Jewish Museum in Brussels on May 24.
The arrest, announced by French and Belgian prosecutors during simultaneous news conferences in Paris and Brussels on June 1, confirms the worst fears about the security threat posed by battle-hardened European jihadists returning from the fighting in Syria.
Western security officials estimate that up to 2,000 Europeans—including 800 from France and 200 from Belgium—have traveled to Syria in the hopes of overthrowing the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and replacing it with an Islamic state.
Mehdi Nemmouche, a 29-year-old French national from the northern town of Roubaix, was arrested at the Saint-Charles train and bus station in Marseille on May 30 during a random search for illegal drugs. He was a passenger on an overnight bus that was travelling from Amsterdam to Marseille via Brussels.
Police found a Kalashnikov rifle, a handgun and an "impressive quantity" of high-caliber ammunition in Nemmouche's luggage. They also found a GoPro miniature video camera as well as a Nikon digital camera containing a 40-second video in which a man believed to be Nemmouche is heard claiming responsibility for the Brussels attack and expressing regret that the GoPro device failed to capture the shooting.
The voice in the video describes the Brussels killings as an "attack against the Jews" and warns that Belgium will experience "fire and blood," according to Belgian federal prosecutor Frédéric Van Leeuw.
The video also shows weapons similar to those used in the Brussels attack and a flag with the words "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" and "Allah is Greater" written on it in Arabic, according to the French anti-terrorism prosecutor François Molins.
In addition, Nemmouche's luggage was found to contain clothing and a baseball cap similar to that worn by the shooter, as well as press clippings about the Brussels attack.
Molins said there was a "very strong body of consistent evidence" tying Nemmouche to the killings. Although the suspect "is very talkative," according to Molin, he refused to answer any questions during the first 24 hours of his interrogation.
Nemmouche is being held at the Paris headquarters of the French domestic intelligence agency DGSI on suspicion of murder, attempted murder, possession of weapons, and transportation of weapons in connection with a terrorist enterprise.
According to French law, DGSI can hold Nemmouche for up to 96 hours (until June 3), or 144 hours (to June 5), if investigators invoke an imminent terrorist threat. But Belgian authorities have already filed an extradition request.
If Nemmouche is proved to be the killer, this would be the first known case in which a European jihadist who returned from Syria carried out an attack on European soil.
The May 24 shooting in the busy Sablon district in central Brussels left three people dead—an Israeli couple and a French woman. A fourth victim, a 24-year-old Belgian man who worked at the Jewish Museum, remains in critical condition.
Belgium has a Jewish population of some 42,000, about half of whom live in Brussels and the rest in the northern port city of Antwerp.
Security camera footage released by Belgian authorities showed the gunman, wearing a dark cap and sunglasses, walking into the building and firing an automatic rifle before calmly walking away.
Belgian police said that the assailant's attempt to use a camera to film his attack mimicked Mohammed Merah, a French-Algerian jihadist who killed seven people, including four Jews, in Toulouse in March 2012.
Although unknown to Belgian authorities, Nemmouche is a "multi-recidivist offender" well known to French police. He has been incarcerated five times (seven years in total) in France for a variety of crimes, including a two-year sentence for the armed robbery of a supermarket in the northern French city of Tourcoing, according to Molins.
During his last stint in prison in the southern French city of Toulon, Molins said, Nemmouche became radicalized, and authorities noticed "his extremist [Islamic] proselytism and calls for collective prayer."
Nemmouche was released from prison in early December 2012 and travelled to Syria three weeks later. "He spent over a year in Syria," Molins said, "where he seems to have joined the ranks of combatant groups, jihadist terrorist groups."
In a "clear desire to cover his tracks," Nemmouche quietly returned to Europe in March 2014 via Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and Germany. But French officials lost contact with Nemmouche, who is homeless and does not maintain contact with his family, because he was "not subject to special monitoring," Molins added.
French President Francois Hollande said his government was determined to do all it could to stop radicalized youths from carrying out attacks. "Our message to returning jihadists is this: we will fight you, we will fight you, we will fight you," he said after the arrest of Nemmouche.
The French government unveiled a new plan in April aimed at preventing French citizens or residents from waging jihad in Syria and other conflict zones in the Muslim world.
The plan includes more than 20 measures—those not requiring new legislation will be implemented immediately—aimed not only at preventing young French Muslim from joining the war in Syria, but also at combatting their radicalization at the earliest stages of indoctrination.
One of the key provisions of the plan involves the creation of a counselling center and a dedicated website and telephone hotline for parents or family members who are seeking professional advice about how to handle children they believe are becoming radicalized.
The toll-free hotline—to be staffed by psychologists, social workers and experts in radical Islam—will also enable parents to secure immediate help from police in cases where underage children are trying to leave France without parental permission.
The government is urging parents to be more vigilant—especially about monitoring their children's activities online—and is asking parents to contact the hotline at the first signs of radicalization. The names of radicalized youths will be placed in a database of wanted persons, a system that would prevent them from boarding flights to destinations beyond the borders of France.
The government also plans to pursue jihad recruiters online by means of a team of specialist investigators who will monitor jihadist chat forums and work undercover to infiltrate recruitment cells.
Still another proposal involves making changes to French law that would enable police to confiscate the passports and seize the assets of suspected would-be jihadists, and to deport those foreigners found to be recruiting jihadists in France.
If Nemmouche is proven to be the individual responsible for the attack in Brussels, however, Hollande's anti-radicalization may turn out to be a case of too little, too late.
Soeren Kern is a Senior Fellow at the New York-based Gatestone Institute. He is also Senior Fellow for European Politics at the Madrid-based Grupo de Estudios Estratégicos / Strategic Studies Group. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter.