Complaints grow that Belgium bungled security before attacks

Complaints grow that Belgium bungled security before attacks

Belgium bungled security before attacks
© AP Photo/Peter Dejong

Complaints grow that Belgium bungled security before attacks, A rose sits in the mouth of a lion as the Belgian flag flies on a building, behind, as people mourn for the victims of the bombings at the Place de la Bourse in the center of Brussels, Belgium, Thursday, March 24, 2016. The Islamic State group has trained at least 400 fighters to target Europe in deadly waves of attacks, deploying interlocking terror cells like the ones that struck Brussels and Paris with orders to choose the time, place and method for maximum carnage.

Two days after the worst terror attack on Belgian soil, signs are growing that the Belgium government failed to address security lapses that might have contributed to Tuesday’s bombings.

The European Union told Belgian authorities to remedy gaps in their border security just weeks before suicide bombers attacked Brussels Airport and a metro station, killing 31 people and wounding 270, according to a report published Thursday.

Belgium bungled security before attacks

The revelation that a list of recommendations was sent to Brussels in February urging it to repair its “deficient” security checks came after Belgium apparently failed to monitor one of the suicide bombers despite warnings from Turkey.

It also followed Belgian and French media reports that a second attacker, possibly at large, is suspected in Tuesday’s metro bombing along with Khalid El Bakraoui.

El Bakraoui’s brother Ibrahim, and Najim Laachraoui, were identified as two suicide bombers who targeted Brussels Airport the same day.

A third unidentified airport suspect is still being sought by police.

Belgium has one of Europe’s largest Muslim communities as a share of its population, and its government estimates that more than 500 Belgians have been recruited to fight for the Islamic State extremist group, which claimed responsibility for the twin bombings.

Brussels has been a target for terror cells ever since authorities determined that about 10 of the November Paris attackers planned their assault in the Molenbeek district of Brussels.

The disclosure that the EU expressed its concerns to Belgium about serious security holes in its border controls was published by British newspaper the Daily Telegraph.

The EU report, according to the newspaper, said that the Belgian government needed “to enhance to situational awareness at all airports and to further combat irregular migration as well as the phenomena of foreign fighters.”

The EU told Belgium to “intensify” checks on people arriving in the country from “high-risk areas.”

The arches of Wembley Stadium are illuminated with The arches of Wembley Stadium are illuminated with the colors of the flag of Belgium on March 23, 2016, in London.

Belgium is observing three days of national mourning after 31 people were killed in a twin suicide blast at Zaventem Airport and a further bomb attack at Maelbeek Metro Station.

Turkey said it deported Ibrahim last year because it suspected him of being a militant but that Belgium did not take its concerns seriously.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told reporters that his country suspected him of attempting to enter Syria to fight with extremists. The Belgian government did not respond to a request for comment on the EU report.

However, Guy Rapaille, who chairs a committee that oversees Belgium’s security services, told state broadcaster RTBF that more intelligence coordination, particularly with the United States, was “desirable.”

Belgium’s justice ministry said Wednesday it was trying ascertain all the information around the case.

The EU and Turkish allegations may prove embarrassing for Belgium’s security forces, which already are under pressure to explain how Salah Abdeslam, the chief suspect in the Nov. 13 Paris attacks managed to evade capture for four months until his capture last Friday by hiding in an area of Brussels that has been a major focus for anti-terrorism investigators.

Family finds woman in iconic Brussels blast photo

Adding further discomfort, the El Bakraouis brothers were known to police and had criminal backgrounds. And in the anti-terrorism operation raid that captured Abdeslam, Belgian police let two suspects linked to the Paris attacks escape.

On Wednesday, they misidentified one of the prime suspects in Tuesday’s bombing, saying Laachraoui was still on the run. They later said he was one of the dead airport suicide bombers.

Belgians have good reason to wonder how an attack could occur in Brussels while police were conducting a dragnet for terrorists ever since the Paris attacks, said Clint Watts, a fellow at the Philadelphia-based Foreign Policy Research Institute and former counter-terrorism agent at the FBI.

“Last week’s arrest of Abdelslam and failure to detect and disrupt a major terrorist attack similar to that of Paris suggests a far more ominous counterterrorism problem in Europe — incompetence,” Watts said.

Belgium’s security network is particularly hampered by a fractured bureaucracy, Watts said.

Numerous police jurisdictions overlaps in Brussels, and local officials in the country’s French- and Flemish-speaking areas tend not to speak to each other, he said.

“Belgium … appears to have both a capacity and competency problem with regards to counterterrorism,” Watts said.

Belgian Foreign Minister Didier Reynders acknowledged when Abdeslam was captured that the alleged terrorist was likely planning more attacks.

“He was ready to restart something from Brussels, and it’s maybe the reality,” Reynders said Saturday at a German Marshall Fund conference in Brussels.

“We found a lot of weapons, heavy weapons in the first investigations, and we have seen a new network of people around him in Brussels.”

On Wednesday, Belgian federal prosecutor Frédéric Van Leeuw said the terrorists might have rushed to launch their attacks knowing police were closing in on them as a result of Abdeslam’s arrest.