French investigators have identified a Moroccan-Belgian jihadist based in Syria as a key plotter of attacks in Paris and Brussels, sources told AFP Tuesday, announcing a breakthrough in their multi-country probe.
Oussama Atar, a 32-year-old believed to be a member of the Islamic State group, was already a suspect in the March 22 attacks on Brussels but has now been linked to the November 13 atrocities in Paris last year.
Police have long suspected that the assault on the French capital, in which teams of jihadists killed 130 people, was coordinated by one or several people from Syria, but have never previously named anyone.
"He's the only coordinator from Syria to have been identified during the investigations," one of the sources told AFP, confirming information first reported in Le Monde newspaper.
France is gearing up to mark the one-year anniversary of the Paris attacks this weekend, which will see the Bataclan concert hall that was targeted by the jihadists reopen on Saturday.
A known extremist
Atar, believed to go by the pseudonym "Abou Ahmad" in Syria, has been on the radar of European security forces for more than a decade.
After being arrested in Iraq in 2004 following the US-led invasion of the country, he spent time in various jails inclu ding the notorious Abu Ghraib prison used by American forces.
After being released, in 2012 he returned to Belgium, whose intelligence and police forces have faced fierce criticism about the development of jihadist networks in Brussels.
"I don't know what happened to him after that," his lawyer at the time, Vincent Lurquin, told AFP in August. 1
Police forces, firefighters and rescue workers secure the area near the Bataclan concert hall in central Paris on November 14, 2015 following a series of coordinated attacks in and around Paris (photo by: Francois Guillot/AFP/File)
Atar claimed he had travelled to Iraq via Syria in order to take medicines to people in need. Concerns about his health while in detention in Iraq were taken up by rights group Amnesty International.
His name resurfaced publicly again following suicide bombings of Brussels' airport and metro system in March which left 32 people dead.
He is a cousin of two of the attackers, the El Bakraoui brothers Khalid and Ibrahim, who took up the cause of Islamic State after years of violent crime in Brussels.
Atar was one of the "most wanted in Belgium and even in Europe", a Belgian police source told AFP in August, when his mother and sister were briefly detained by police.
He also has family ties to Moustapha and Jawad Benhattal, who were arrested on June 18 on suspicion of planning an attack in Belgium during a screening of a Euro 2016 football match, Belgian media reported at the time.
The 'Abou Ahmad' mystery
French investigators were able to link him to the Paris attacks following the arrests of two suspected extremists, an Algerian and a Pakistani, detained in Austria last December.
The Algerian admitted in custody that he had intended to take part in the Paris attacks and had been sent by an "Abou Ahmad". He then identified Atar from police photos, a source close to the investigation told AFP.
Conversations extracted by a c omputer used by one of the Brussels attackers also referred to an "Abou Ahmad", the source said.
As well as the Bataclan reopening this weekend, French President Francois Hollande will lead low-key commemorations on Sunday in the presence of survivors.