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Questions grow about why authorities couldn’t stop attacks

Belgium’s interior minister: ‘If you put all things in a row, you can ask yourself major questions’


 
A soldier stands near broken windows after explosions at Zaventem airport near Brussels, Belgium, March 22, 2016. (Francois Lenoir/Reuters)

A soldier stands near broken windows after explosions at Zaventem airport near Brussels, Belgium, March 22, 2016. (Francois Lenoir/Reuters)

BRUSSELS — Belgium’s interior minister and justice minister tried to resign Thursday ahead of an emergency meeting of European security chiefs held amid growing questions about why authorities couldn’t prevent deadly Islamic extremist attacks on Brussels despite increasing signs of a threat.

Prosecutors announced a direct connection between the Brussels bombings that killed 31 people and injured 270 others and last year’s attacks on Paris, which appear to have been carried out by the same Islamic State network. The attacks have laid bare European security failings and prompted calls for better intelligence co-operation.

Interior Minister Jan Jambon said after a government meeting Thursday that “If you put all things in a row, you can ask yourself major questions” about the government’s handling of the threat from Islamic extremists.

One notable question was raised by Turkey’s announcement that it had warned Belgium last year that one of the Brussels attackers had been flagged as a “foreign terrorist fighter.”

But the prime minister asked Jambon and Justice Minister Koen Geens to stay on, given the current challenge the government is facing. The country lowered its threat level late Thursday, but said the potential for attacks remains likely.

“The danger has not gone away,” said Paul Zan Pigchelt, the head of the terror assessment authority.

The meeting came as Belgian and French media reported a second attacker is suspected of taking part in the bombing this week of a Brussels subway train and may be at large.

Belgian prosecutors have said at least four people were involved in Tuesday’s attacks on the Brussels airport and a subway train, including brothers Ibrahim and Khalid El Bakraoui, identified as suicide bombers. European security officials identified another suicide bomber as Najim Laachraoui, a suspected bombmaker for the Paris attacks.

Khalid El Bakraoui blew himself up on the train, while Ibrahim El Bakraoui and Laachraoui died in the airport.

Prosecutors have said another suspected participant in the airport attack is at large, a man in a hat seen in surveillance images who has not been publicly identified.

Belgian state broadcaster RTBF and France’s Le Monde and BFM television reported Thursday that a fifth attacker may also be at large: a man filmed by surveillance cameras in the Brussels metro on Tuesday carrying a large bag alongside Khalid El Bakraoui. It is not clear whether that man was killed in the attack.

Prosecutors, who have not said how many people overall may have taken part in the bombings, did not respond to the reports.

The federal prosecutors’ office issued a statement Thursday saying that Khalid El Bakraoui had rented a house used as a hideout for the Paris attackers, and that he had been hunted by police since December.

Several of the Paris attackers were Belgian or had links to Belgium, and the country has been on high alert for possible attacks.

Turkey’s president said Wednesday that one of the Brussels suicide bombers, Ibrahim El Bakraoui, was caught in June 2015 near Turkey’s border with Syria and deported to the Netherlands, with Ankara warning Dutch and Belgian officials that he was a “foreign terrorist fighter.” Turkish officials said he was later released from Dutch custody due to lack of evidence of involvement in extremism.

The Dutch justice minister has confirmed that one of the Brussels suicide bombers was flown from Turkey to Amsterdam in July, but says that authorities weren’t told why and had no reason to detain him.

In a letter to parliament, Justice Minister Ard van der Steur said Thursday that Ibrahim El Bakraoui was put on a plane from Istanbul to the Dutch capital on July 14, but that Turkish officials didn’t say why and his name wasn’t flagged in any Dutch law enforcement databases.

Van der Steur says that El Bakraoui had a valid Belgian passport when he arrived in Amsterdam “so there was no reason to take any action” at Schiphol Airport.

It wasn’t clear what El Bakraoui did after arriving in the Netherlands.

European Union justice and interior ministers held an emergency Thursday afternoon to discuss the attacks, and pledged to co-operate more closely on intelligence sharing. They also appealed “as a matter of urgency” for the European Parliament to adopt an agreement that would allow authorities to exchange airport passenger data.

Also Thursday, the chief suspect in the Paris attacks, Salah Abdeslam, was summoned to court in Brussels after his arrest last week in the Belgian capital. His lawyer, who had initially vowed to fight extradition, said Abdeslam now wants to be sent to France as soon as possible.

Abdeslam evaded police in two countries for four months before Friday’s capture, and the attackers in Brussels may have rushed their plot because they felt authorities closing in. Abdeslam’s lawyer, Sven Mary, told reporters at the courthouse that he asked for a one-month delay on any transfer while he studies the large dossier, but that Abdeslam “wants to explain himself in France, so it’s a good thing.” Mary said the extradition process should be done by mid-April.

France is seeking Abdeslam’s extradition to face justice for his involvement in the Nov. 13 attacks on a Paris rock concert, stadium and cafes, which killed 130 people. Several attackers were also killed.

Belgium is holding three days of national mourning.

Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel, in a speech Thursday, said the attacks on the European Union’s capital targeted the “liberty of daily life” and “the liberty upon which the European project was built.”

“Our country and our population were hit at its heart,” he said in front of the Parliament building. He honoured the “children who have lost their papas, who have lost their mamas” in the attacks.

Security remains tight, but barriers were removed around the subway station hit by the attack, Maelbeek. The airport will remain closed until at least Saturday.


 
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