Experts: Belgium often comes up short in preventing attacks
Brussels — Belgium has come up short in its efforts to prevent extremist attacks time and again, experts say — failing to coordinate intelligence, investigate suspects and control its borders.
No country has a perfect record, but Belgium’s is especially bad.
On Tuesday, suicide bombers linked to the Islamic State group detonated their explosives at Brussels Airport and on a subway train, killing 32 people including three of the attackers and injuring some 270.
Raffaello Pantucci, director of international security studies at the Royal United Services Institute in London, called it “depressingly predictable” that a major attack would occur in Brussels.
“There is sort of a perfect union,” he said — a combination of homegrown, hardened Muslim radicals willing to act and possessing the tools and opportunity, as well as a government and law enforcement structure that simply isn’t up to the task.
Historically, Belgium has often been found wanting when it comes to sharing intelligence among different agencies, applying what’s learned to police work and controlling its external borders, said Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Brookings Institution think tank.
In addition, he said, Brussels often fails to strike the balance that other countries achieve in weighing the desire to investigate suspected criminal activity and the need to act quickly when an immediate threat is identified.
“I don’t believe Belgium has done very well with most of the above over the years,” O’Hanlon said. “Though I suspect they will rethink things from first principles now.”
In a shocking departure from the habitually polite speech of European relations, French Finance Minister Michel Sapin accused Belgian officials on Tuesday of a “lack of will … maybe also a kind of naivete” in ignoring the spread of radical Islam among the country’s 650,000-member Muslim population.
Alain Marsaud, a conservative member of France’s parliament, said in a newspaper interview he was “disgusted by the inability of the Belgians over these recent months and years to deal with this problem.”
He expressed particular astonishment that it took the Belgians more than four months to capture Paris attacks suspect Salah Abdeslam, who returned to Brussels the day after the bloodbath in the French capital but eluded Belgian authorities multiple times and was run to ground only Friday.
Belgium interior and justice ministers both tendered their resignations overnight Wednesday after the unprecedented peacetime attacks on their nation — and the revelation that one of the suicide bombers, Ibrahim El Bakraoui, had been flagged to Belgian and Dutch authorities as a “foreign terrorist fighter” by Turkey, which deported him to the Netherlands in June. Turkish officials said El Bakraoui was subsequently released from Dutch custody.
“During the process of passing on the information from Turkey and during the information processing in Belgium, things went slower than the circumstances warranted,” Belgian Justice Minister Koen Geens conceded.
“If you put all things in a row, you can ask yourself major questions” about Belgium’s handling of the threat of Islamic extremism, said Interior Minister Jan Jambon.
Prime Minister Charles Michel refused to accept either resignation.
The reasons for the Belgian dysfunction are many.
Guns, including illegal battlefield-grade weapons from the former Yugoslavia, are readily available.
A complicated, disjointed governmental structure has hindered the forging of a unified front against extremism. Mayors in the greater Brussels area complained last year that even when officially alerted to the presence of suspected radicals in their municipalities, they lacked the power to do anything about it.
The Brussels area, a mosaic of 19 municipalities where 1 million people live, has six separate police zones, compared to a single law enforcement agency for all of New York City and its population of 8.4 million.
And around the country, different forces operate in French, Dutch or German, complicating communication.
“They have got so many different police forces, and they don’t all talk to each other,” Pantucci said.
All that has allowed radical groups to operate with less fear of detection than they face elsewhere. Per capita, Belgium is the Islamic State’s most fertile recruiting ground in Europe as it seeks to find Westerners to fight for its self-styled caliphate in Syria and Iraq.
Many of the suicide bombers and gunmen in last year’s Paris attacks lived in Brussels. And French authorities say Belgian involvement is suspected in the abortive attack on an international express train and a failed plot to attack a Paris-area church.
“Belgium has been a prime site for immigrants from the Middle East and has notoriously poor police and border controls,” said Melvyn Levitsky, a former U.S. ambassador with postings in Europe and South America.
RTBF Belgian broadcasting reported this month that an official oversight body had found gaps and errors in how Belgian law enforcement handled information about the Paris attackers before they wrought their carnage. An example: An alias used by one suspect was keyed into some police databases but not the central one, it said.
The government concedes it needs to make progress. Last month, it announced a 400-million euro ($448 million) program to combat “terrorism and radicalization,” including the hiring of 1,000 additional police, prosecutors, state security agents and other personnel.
“We have to do more,” Michel, the prime minister, said in November, “and we have to do better.”
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