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Paris Terror Suspect Confesses He Was In Video With Brussels Bombers

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Investigators in Brussels believe they have answered an important question related to the suicide attacks there last month. Mohamed Abrini admitted to authorities that he is the so-called man in the hat. It's another link between those Brussels bombings and the November attacks in Paris. Reporter Teri Schultz has more.

TERI SCHULTZ, BYLINE: Brussels prosecutors say when confronted with the evidence they'd compiled, Mohamed Abrini confessed to being the much sought after (speaking French), the man in the hat at Brussels' Zaventem Airport. He's believed to have dropped off a suitcase packed with explosives on March 22, accompanying the two suicide bombers to their detonation points and then leaving the scene.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking French).

SCHULTZ: That's a video police released Thursday, a compilation of security camera footage tracking the man now known to be Abrini as he walked for some two hours into central Brussels from the airport. In his confession, prosecutors say he told them he dumped his jacket along the way and later sold that hat.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking French).

SCHULTZ: It's not yet known whether it was a tip from this video that led to Abrini's arrest Friday night, but even before the 31-year-old Belgian of Moroccan descent was the man in the hat, he was a wanted man. The search for him began just after the November attacks in Paris when surveillance video surfaced of him with his childhood friend, Salah Abdeslam, just days before the attacks. Abdeslam, believed to be the last living Paris perpetrator, was captured in March. Abrini's DNA was found in a car used by those attackers and in safehouses used by the network back in Brussels.

Abrini's been charged with terrorist murders for that alleged role in the deaths of 130 people in Paris. And now, by admitting he was at the Brussels airport, Abrini provides a direct link between the two plots, connecting some of the dots Belgian investigators have been blamed for missing earlier. Belgian terror analyst Pieter van Ostaeyen says while these developments are important, they won't shut down extremist operations. Van Ostaeyen's been tracking terrorist recruitment in Belgium for years. And he says the prosecutor's announcement of an abrupt Abrini confession strikes him as strange.

PIETER VAN OSTAEYEN: No, I don't buy the statement.

SCHULTZ: Van Ostaeyen says while Abrini may be the man in the hat, it's not Islamic State's style to confess. So this could just be to distract investigators.

VAN OSTAEYEN: I've been analyzing these guys' modus operandi in Europe since the beginning, and this is just off. There's no way that some guy like Mohamed Abrini would go out and say I was the guy in the hat. I sold my hat. And I'm going to tell you everything about my network. No way. No way.

SCHULTZ: Three more men were charged Saturday along with Abrini, one of whom was filmed by security cameras buying the luggage used for the airport bombs. And then he was seen with a subway bomber in the Metro station. Van Ostaeyen says he believes there are more important operators out there still planning attacks. He thinks the Belgian government believes that too, and that's why they've decided not to lower the terror threat level from its current three out of a maximum four. That means the threat of an attack remains credible and possible. For NPR News, I'm Teri Schultz. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.