‘Man in hat’ left a trail across Europe that led to Britain – Telegraph.co.uk

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He is believed to have spent around a week in Britain, reportedly meeting a string of Islamist contacts in Birmingham, Manchester and London.

The visit to the UK was recently confirmed both to The Daily Telegraph, by French intelligence, and by the Interpol president Mireille Ballestrazzi during an interview on BBC One’s Panorama programme. Significantly, it is thought that Abrini may also have been scouting potential targets for attacks in the UK. He is reported to have taken pictures of a football stadium.

Images of railway stations and shopping centres are also said to have been found on his phone. And, crucially, he is not the only member of the suspected Molenbeek terror cell to have been in Birmingham, following claims that Abdelhamid Abaaoud is also thought to have travelled to the city. Continuing his pattern of returning by a separate route, French intelligence sources believe Abrini then boarded a flight from Birmingham to Paris.

From there he was picked up by a contact and driven back to Brussels. By August he was on the move again, but this time the route was through Germany. From there he is thought to have flown to Morocco but little is currently known about his route back.

However he returned, by the autumn he was heavily involved in what is thought to have been planning for the Paris attacks.

On November 10 and 11, just two days before the atrocities, Abrini is believed to have accompanied the Abdeslam brothers on two separate trips to the French capital, seemingly to rent safe houses. CCTV footage shows him and Salah Abdeslam in a Renault Clio buying petrol in the Oise region, north of Paris, on November 11.

He was also seen in a Belgian service station near the French border the following day in one of the cars used in the Paris attacks. But as the day of the attacks dawned he is believed to have left Paris for Brussels, reportedly being spotted in a bar in Molenbeek that evening with Ahmad Dahmani, a suspected accomplice who was later arrested in Turkey.

According to both French reports and British sources, by early this year the cell had set their sights on new attacks in the UK as well as the Euro 2016 football tournament in France, which begins in June. But the arrest on March 18 of Salah Abdeslam prompted an urgent rethink, switching the focus closer to home.

According to Belgian prosecutors, the terrorists had been “surprised by the speed of the progress in the ongoing investigation” and decided to rush the airport and metro station attacks in Brussels, in which more than 30 people died, just four days later.

Abrini was caught on CCTV accompanying the suicide bombers Ibrahim el-Bakraoui, 29, and Najim Laachraoui, 24, to the airport moments before the bombings. But when his own explosives failed to detonate he walked calmly away.

When images of him dressed in a hat and white jacket were circulated he became the most wanted man in Europe. His own admission, just days ago, that he was indeed the “man in the hat” is now thought to have been the trigger for the recent arrests in Birmingham.

‘Man in hat’ left a trail across Europe that led to Britain – Telegraph.co.uk