Two alleged Islamic militants held in Spain admit being at Brussels airport during attack

Police officers patrol the Brussels airport ahead of a commemoration ceremony, March 22, 2017.
Police officers patrol the Brussels airport ahead of a commemoration ceremony, March 22, 2017. PHOTO: REUTERS

MADRID (AFP) - Two suspected Islamic militants arrested in Spain have admitted being in Brussels airport at the time of the deadly March 2016 attack but deny involvement, a court spokesman said on Thursday (April 27).

Mohamed Lamsalak and Youssef Ben Hammou "have admitted that they were at the airport when the bombs went off," said a spokesman for the National Court, which specialises in terrorism among other things and is a special high court.

"They deny involvement in the attacks," he added.

The two, who were heard by a judge on Thursday, said however that during the visit, they had met with a relative of two brothers who staged suicide bombings at the airport and a metro station.

Belgium has been on high alert since March 22 last year when suicide bombers attacked Zaventem airport and the Maalbeek metro station, killing 32 people and leaving more than 320 wounded.

The attacks were led by an Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) cell that was also responsible for the carnage in Paris in November 2015.

The spokesman said an inquiry had established that the men were in Brussels from March 16-23.

"They say that they went to Brussels to buy a car," he said.

"Investigators are trying to determine if the money (intended for the purchase of the car) was used to finance the attack or facilitate subsequent logistics," he added.

The two suspects were among a group of nine people taken in for questioning in Barcelona and the northeastern region of Catalonia earlier this week. The inquiry was mounted by Spanish police in conjunction with their Belgian counterparts.

On Tuesday, police said the nine were made up of eight Moroccans and one Spanish national.

Between 2012 and October 2016, Spain detained 186 people with suspected links to Islamic militancy, including 63 in Catalonia, according to the interior ministry.

Spain, the world's third most visited country, increased its terror alert to category four on a five-point scale in 2015 after attacks in France, Tunisia and Kuwait.

The country has been mentioned on extremist websites as a possible target for historical reasons, since much of its territory was under Muslim rule from 711 to 1492.

But it has been spared major militant violence since March 2004, when bombs exploded on commuter trains in Madrid, killing 191 people in an attack claimed by Al-Qaeda-inspired militants.

Unlike France or Belgium, Spain is less exposed to the risk that radicalised citizens who left to fight abroad will return with plans to commit attacks on home soil.

Only around 160 Spaniards are estimated to have joined ISIS in Iraq and Syria, according to a study by the Real Instituto Elcano think-tank, compared with over a thousand from nearby France since 2012.