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article imageSuspect in Abdeslam's shadow may be bigger player than thought

By ClĂ©ment ZAMPA (AFP)     Feb 6, 2018 in Crime

A Tunisian man on trial in Belgium alongside Paris terror suspect Salah Abdeslam may have been a bigger player in the Islamic State group than first thought, investigators say.

Sofiane Ayari, 24, took a purely supporting role on Monday as the world's attention focused on Abdeslam at their trial over a 2016 gunbattle in Brussels that led to their capture.

But a Belgian police file attached to the case of the November 13, 2015 Paris attacks paints a different picture of the young man from Tunis, who confided to a friend his "desire to die a martyr".

The document alleged that Ayari, who is being held in prison near the Belgian city of Liege, was "asked to return to Europe in order to also take part in terrorist acts".

And it said Ayari may have also been implicated in an attack in Tunis on a bus carrying presidential security forces that killed 12 people in November 2015, although it did not explain how he could have been involved when he was in Belgium at the time.

France has also asked Belgium to hand him over for a possible indictment over the role in preparing the Paris attacks, in which 130 people were killed.

Ayari was captured with Abdeslam in Brussels three days after the shootout. Prosecutors said they thought Ayari and a third jihadist, an Algerian who was killed in the gunbattle, had opened fire on police, which Ayari denies.

- 'Don't think I'm a radical' -

The Tunisian has so far avoided fully answering questions about his support for IS, which claimed both the Paris and Brussels attacks.

He admitted joining IS in the war-torn country at "the end of 2014" after abandoning his studies at university.

Ayari, who wore a tracksuit and had scars on his neck and jaw, sounded ambivalent about IS when asked how he felt about the group now.

"I don't think I am a radical," he said, adding that "you can't agree 100 percent with Islamic State".

But when asked if he agreed with IS attacks outside Syria -- the group claimed many including the Paris and Brussels attacks -- he replied: "That's their business."

During his testimony he dodged several specific questions and also switched between French and Arabic, which had to be translated by an interpreter.

Prosecutors in the trial say Ayari opened fire on police  which Ayari denies
Prosecutors in the trial say Ayari opened fire on police, which Ayari denies
EMMANUEL DUNAND, POOL/AFP/File

Investigators said Ayari arrived in Europe via the Greek island of Leros on September 20, 2015 during the migration crisis, as did several of the Paris attackers.

He registered on October 1 in Germany, where he is believed to have arrived with two other members of the Paris-Brussels terror cell: Osama Krayem and Ahmed Alkhald.

Krayem is in custody as a key suspect in the Brussels bombings of March 22, 2016, days after he and Abdeslam were arrested. Alkhald is suspected to be the cell's bombmaker but is at large.

- 'Your planes bomb Syria' -

Abdeslam met the three men in Ulm in Germany on the night of October 2 and drove them to Brussels.

"Ayari and Krayem did not know Belgium. They came especially to Belgium to participate in the jihadist cell," prosecutor Kathleen Grosjean said.

Investigators say Ayari's DNA or fingerprints were found in five of the cell's Belgian hideouts, including some where the Paris attacks were prepared.

Ayari insisted to investigators that, "I had nothing to do with the Paris attacks."

Yet he showed a flash of his beliefs after investigators said the victims' families wanted answers, telling them: "Your planes bomb innocent people in Syria and nobody gives a damn."

The judge also asked him on Monday about a bus trip he made to Amsterdam with Osama Krayem the day of the Paris attacks.

Krayem allegedly told investigators that Brussels bomber Ibrahim El Bakraoui sent him to Schipol airport to "find lockers big enough for weapons, explosives and money."

Tellingly, Belgian police found a computer dumped near one of the jihadist hideouts containing a "November 13" file with various folders for teams including the "Schipol group".

Ayari avoided the subject on Monday, saying he came to Belgium temporarily and only wanted to return to Syria.

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