Analysis / They Looked for Drugs and Found the Brussels Suspect Instead

Mehdi Nemmouche made a crucial mistake when choosing which bus to board from Belgium to France.

AFP

For a week, Mehdi Nemmouche, the suspected murderer in the attack on the Jewish Museum in Brussels, went under the radar of Belgian security services. Then, on Friday, he boarded a bus for a 10-hour journey to Marseilles. After a short while, he crossed the border back to his homeland, France.

While he successfully evaded the massive manhunt in Belgium, he made one crucial mistake when choosing the bus – a mistake that led to his capture.

In the borderless European Union, passengers from Belgium to France are rarely inspected. But the bus Nemmouche boarded originated in Amsterdam, which caught the attention of local police. They weren't looking for militants, but travelers who take advantage of the liberal Dutch laws on the purchase of cannabis to import weed to France. The Gendarmes were searching for drugs and found a terror suspect instead.

Nemmouche's beginner's mistake was compounded by the fact that he should have known that as a fighter in the ranks of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham (ISIS), an Al-Qaida affiliate and the main Islamist rebel group fighting the Assad regime in Syria, he would have been on the watch-list of security forces throughout the continent. If that wasn't amateurish enough, he added the cardinal mistake of not getting rid of his weapons immediately after the attack.

The security cameras from the museum's entrance that filmed the gunman killing Mira and Emanuel Riva, showed a man who seemed to be operating professionally. He first dispatched the Rivas using a hand-gun; then quickly returned it to his bag, drew out a Kalashnikov rifle and fired a salvo through the main entrance - killing a French citizen and seriously wounding a fourth victim.

The shooter's apparent skill and calmness - and the fact that he swiftly disappeared into the street - in addition to the fact the Rivas both filled positions on the periphery of Israel's intelligence community, gave rise to a wide range of rumors that this was a targeted strike, despite there being no information to substantiate such a conjecture.

Nemmouche's amateurish actions this last weekend now indicate much more clearly that the attack was not carried out on behalf of a large and organized movement and that the victims were tragically unfortunate to be there when a perpetrator bent on murdering Jews arrived. His proficiency in the use of small arms and killing were probably the result of training and experience acquired in Syria.

But he was not trained in evading Western security once he returned to France. Nemmouche may have become a trained foot-soldier but he was not a seasoned undercover operative. He kept his guns with him out of a soldier's instinct to never let go of his weapons.

And still, the fact that he managed to evade capture for a week and that it was only his own mistakes that eventually gave him away underline the difficulty of security services in Europe in dealing with the growing group of young Muslims traveling to fight in Syria, returning home even more radicalized and with skills in urban warfare and sabotage.

At least 600 such volunteers alone have left France for Syria. Some are now back home and it is almost impossible to keep all of them under surveillance in the wide-open continent. The shooting at the Jewish Museum in Brussels seems to have been the first in a wave of terror attacks that experts have been warning of with the return from Syria of volunteers.

The main questions that still remain are whether Nemmouche acted on his own, who harbored him over the last week in Brussels, and whether he is part of a larger local group of Syrian veterans who hold stores of weapons on European soil. The fact that the first target to be chosen was identified with the Jewish community does not necessarily indicate that the next targets will be, too. However, the already significant security around Jewish buildings will be tightened. Nemmouche probably chose the museum because it was the only Jewish target in Brussels without security.

Meanwhile the immediate result will be renewed attempts at closer surveillance of volunteers, perhaps even preventive arrests and interrogations and an even lesser eagerness on the part of Western governments to assist the rebels in Syria in opposing the massacres perpetrated by President Bashar Assad, with the help of Iran and Hezbollah.