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FBI analyzing phones, computers seized in Brussels bomb investigation

Posted at 10:59 AM, Mar 29, 2016
and last updated 2016-03-29 10:59:52-04

Several phones and computers seized in the Brussels terror attacks investigation are being analyzed by the FBI in the United States, according to a U.S. official.

The phones and computers were seized in raids as authorities investigated the explosions that ripped through the Zaventem airport and Maelbeek metro station one week ago. Thirty-five people were killed and more than 300 were injured.

Belgian authorities asked for the FBI’s assistance after being unable to access some of the data on the devices, the official said.

FBI agents in Brussels shipped hard drives and other data, including the phones, ‎to the United States to be analyzed.

Members of the FBI’s joint terrorism task force, including bomb technicians, have been working with authorities in Brussels collecting intelligence on the types of explosive devices and materials used.

‘I’m scared to go out’

In Brussels, while families prepare to bury their dead, sweeping police raids have become a daily reality. Military vehicles and soldiers occupy the city’s centuries-old cobblestone streets.

“When I cross the road I am afraid,” Brussels resident Halima Abdelkader told CNN. “It’s my country, and I’m scared to go out.”

A city once known by foreigners for its beer, chocolate and waffles is now more associated with terror than truffles.

After the worst terror attack in their country’s history, Belgians are left to wonder: Is this the norm we must get used to?

‘Playing catch-up ball’

Two men spotted on surveillance footage remain at large: an unidentified bomber at the Brussels Airport and a man believed to have been involved in the metro station attack.

They’re among at least eight suspects authorities are still searching for throughout Europe in connection with the March 22 blasts.

But the cell may be much bigger — as many as several hundred perpetrators, CNN security analyst and former CIA operative Bob Baer said.

That figure includes what Baer describes as the “witting” and the “unwitting” — those privy to the motives of potential terrorists and those who think they’re just aiding and abetting organized criminals.

“They’re (Belgian investigators) playing catch-up ball. They’ve ignored this threat forever, the jihadi threat, and what they’re doing is arresting everyone connected to this cell — whether they have evidence or not,” Baer said.

“This open-ended investigation may go on for months and years.”

Three men were charged in Belgium on Monday, accused of participating in the activities of a terrorist group. But investigators have been tight-lipped about the specific allegations against people who are in custody.

And in the days since the attacks, a number of people have been arrested and charged, only to be released later when investigators said the evidence against them wasn’t conclusive.

That’s what happened on Monday, when authorities announced a man they’d identified as Faycal C. and charged with “terrorist murder” was being set free.

“It clearly is a setback,” CNN terrorism analyst Paul Cruickshank said. “They clearly at a certain point, perhaps based on eyewitness reports, believed that he might have been at the airport, might have been involved. They clearly do not now believe that. … So there’s this manhunt that goes on.”

Who is the third airport bomber?

After a major terrorist attack, it’s no surprise to see people picked up and then let go, said Philip Mudd, a former CIA official and CNN counterterrorism analyst.

“The police do not have time to surveil people over weeks in the case of an imminent threat, because they fear that there’s going to be another attack. So they’re going to bring everybody in, see who’s dirty, and some of those people are going to be released,” he said. “This is pretty common in an investigation of this magnitude.”

But one thing about the Brussels investigation so far, he said, is notable: We still don’t know who the third alleged airport bomber was.

“The lack of identification to me is surprising,” he said, “especially now that the public has seen this for so long. Somebody out there … knows who he is.”

Authorities in Belgium and the United States have a list of people they believe he could be, and they’re following leads from multiple places, law enforcement officials told CNN.

Belgian police renewed their call for tips about the suspect Monday, releasing a video that shows him walking through the airport.

As they try to trace the network of people behind the Brussels attacks, investigators have their work cut out for them, Cruickshank said.

“There’s a spider web, an intricate spider web stretching through Europe,” he said. “The center of that spider web is Brussels.”