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Investigators believe Brussels gunman was a lone wolf

The Belgian capital has downgraded the terrorist alert level after the death of the suspect. The Swedish Prime Minister will participate on Wednesday in a tribute to the victims of the attack

Brussels
People leave flowers at the Brussels bank headquarters where two Swedish fans were killed by a gunman on Monday.OLIVIER HOSLET (EFE)
Silvia Ayuso

The terrorist nightmare that Brussels was plunged back into after a man shot dead two Swedish citizens and wounded a third on Monday night to “avenge Muslims” began to subside a day later, after Belgian authorities confirmed that the suspected terrorist, Abdesalem Lassoued, had been shot dead in a café in the Brussels neighborhood of Schaerbeek. Belgian investigators believe the attack was the action of a “lone wolf” and not a broader jihadist plan, despite the fact that the Islamic State (ISIS) described Lassoued on Tuesday as a “fighter” of the jihadist group.

The suspect — a 45-year-old Tunisian man who was in an irregular situation in the country — fatally shot two Swedish citizens, prompting authorities to halt a Sweden-Belgium soccer match and leaving over 35,000 soccer fans holed up in the nearby national stadium for hours as the capital went on its highest terror alert level with the assailant at large.

According to Belgium’s Minister of Justice, Vincent van Quickenborne, Lassoued is likely to have acted alone in response to the burning of copies of the Koran in recent months in Sweden, which has triggered widespread protests in the Muslim world. Even so, the minister stressed there was no warning of an imminent threat. On Monday night, authorities said there was no evidence that the attack was sparked by the Israeli war in Gaza after the Hamas attack, but on Tuesday said a link was being explored.

Van Quickenborne was also quick to dismiss criticism that warning signs had been ignored. In 2016, another country notified Belgium that the man had a “radicalized profile,” but the minister said that it was receiving dozens of similar reports every day at the time. According to the Italian press, Lassoued arrived in Europe in 2011 through the island of Lampedusa and was in Sweden several times before settling in Belgium, where in 2019 he filed for asylum. After his application was rejected a year later, authorities lost track of him. In a message on X (formerly Twitter), the Islamic State described Lassoued as a soldier “of Allah.”

In response to the attack, Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson called for greater security and better border controls in the EU. “This is a time for more security. We can’t be naive,” he said during a press conference on Monday. Kristersson will travel to Brussels on Wednesday to join his Belgian counterpart, Alexander De Croo, in a tribute to the victims of the attack — two Swedish soccer fans who were on their way to attend the match when they were shot dead by Lassoued.

Many questions still remain about the attack, which placed Brussels to its highest terror alert — the same one it was on in March 2016, when two suicide bombers detonated bombs that killed 33 people and wounded hundreds. Dozens of terrorists, including several participants in the November 13 attacks in Paris, were recently sentenced to long prison terms for the crimes.

Brussels gradually returned to calm on Tuesday. De Croo announced that the terrorist alert level had been lowered from the maximum of 4 to 3 for a “serious threat” —the same level the rest of the country is on — and called on the population to remain “vigilant” and allow the increased police presence on the streets. The decision to downgrade the terror alert was made after it became the clear that the suspect was unlikely to be part of a broader terrorist network. One question that remains unanswered is how a man in an irregular situation and a “radicalization profile” could get hold of an assault rifle and shoot two people in the capital.

“The hypothesis of the lone wolf seems the most likely,” said federal magistrate Frederic Van Leeuw. He explained that investigators questioned two people on Tuesday over their links with the suspect and carried out four searches without being able to confirm that the attack was part of a broader plan. Belgian law, like French law, prohibits house searches between 9 p.m. and 5 a.m. except in exceptional cases, such as a “flagrant crime.”

When Bihal heard gunshots next to his house early on Tuesday, near a café, and saw several police officers surrounding the premises, the 32-year-old immigrant immediately linked it to the shooting on Monday. He wasn’t wrong. Shortly after, the Belgian Prosecutor’s Office confirmed that a witness had reported that the suspect was in the café just after 8 a.m. The site was not far from Lassoued’s home or where he killed the two Swedes.

Lassoued was shot by police and died shortly after, at 9:38 a.m., in a hospital in the capital. He was carrying a military weapon and a bag of clothes, according to the prosecutor’s office. Two other firearms and a knife were found nearby. The police are still investigating the origin of the weapons.

According to the Belgian press, not even those closest to the attacker knew of his intention to carry out an attack. His wife, who works in a hairdresser’s salon in Schaerbeek, took refuge in a local police station with her daughter after discovering that her partner had claimed responsibility for the attack on social media. “I never noticed anything or saw any signs” of radicalization. “We were a couple like any other,” she told Het Laastse Nieuws.

The attack occurred shortly after 7 p.m. on Monday in central Brussels when Lassoued, dressed in an orange fluorescent jacket, got off a scooter on a busy street and began shooting with an automatic rifle. According to some versions, he shouted “Allahu Akbar” (God is great) while firing. Several people took refuge at the entrance of a building. Lassoued followed them and shot a man who was on the ground at point-blank range. After going out onto the street again, he fired another shot at a vehicle before calmly leaving on his scooter and disappearing, unleashing a frantic search that ended 14 hours later in the police action in which he also lost his life.

“Terrorism strikes indiscriminately,” said De Croo following the attack. “It aims to sow fear, mistrust and division in our free societies. Terrorists must know that they will never achieve their goals.”

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