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Belgium faulted for predictable security lapses; cops visited bomb-makers’ flat month earlier

AP

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 cooperation.

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.

Notable among the questions is those 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 is under its highest terror alert level.

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.

European Union justice and interior ministers were holding an emergency Thursday afternoon to discuss the attacks, and French President Francois Hollande said France would “speak loud and clear” for better intelligence sharing and tougher measures against weapons trafficking.

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 were 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 honored 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.

Belgian police were called to the address used as a hideout for jihadis in Brussels a month before they took part in attacks that claimed 31 lives, the woman who phoned the police that day told The Associated Press.

Although police were merely investigating fallen glass and it’s unclear whether anyone was living in the apartment at the time, news that law enforcement visited a key staging post for a triple suicide bombing only weeks before it took place may add to concern over the effectiveness of the country’s security forces.

Fathia Berajaa, a 41-year-old who works near the hideout, told AP she called police on the afternoon of Feb. 8 after a pane of glass came loose from the top story window frame of the apartment building at No. 4 Max Roos Street and fell onto her Renault sedan parked below. She showed AP her damaged car and a smartphone photo of a police officer filling out a report. AP was independently shown a signed copy of the same document.

It’s on the top floor of No. 4, in the northeast Brussels neighborhood of Schaerbeek, that police on Tuesday discovered an apparent bomb-making factory, including 15 kg (33 pounds) of homemade explosives and nails for use as shrapnel.

Berajaa said she called police because she wanted to discuss compensation with whoever was responsible for renovating the structure. She said two officers came and climbed to the top floor.

“They went and checked it out,” Berajaa said. “They said they didn’t want to come every time something like this happened.”

It’s uncertain how close police came to stumbling upon the plotters. It’s possible the attackers, whose whereabouts during that period was unknown, had not yet arrived in the apartment.

Belgian police would not comment on the matter and prosecutors did not respond to calls.

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.

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 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 last 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.

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 ($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.”