Despite Progress, Belgium Still Struggles to Deal With ISIS Threat

Amazement registered over warning signs ignored, laxness before Tuesday’s attack.

Najim Laachraoui

BRUSSELS – Conflicting reports filled the Belgian media on Wednesday morning as to whether terror suspect Najim Laachraoui had been caught in Anderlecht, a suburb of Brussels.

He is suspected of constructing explosive devices that suicide bombers used in the airport and Brussels metro station, killing at least 30 people on Tuesday. However, question marks are piling up around the failures in the Belgian government’s security and intelligence work.

Publishing the names of two of the suicide bombers who blew themselves up in the airport and metro – Ibrahim and Khalid Al-Bakraoui – and the fact that they were well known to the police because they had been involved in violent crimes, and that they rented apartments in the suburbs of Brussels for Salah Abdeslam, one of the planners of the Paris terror attacks four months ago, amplify the amazement over how they succeeded, together with Abdeslam, to evade authorities for so long a time.

The brothers Khalid and Brahim El Bakraoui.
Screenshot

It also adds to the incredulity at how they, together with the Laachraoui, who is also a main suspect in the ISIS network in France and Belgium (and who likely prepared the suicide belt that the terrorist in Paris used) entered the airport. The failure continues in that Laachraoui, who managed to escape the terminal before the bombs were detonated, is probably still going around free. As of now, the third person in the security footage in the airport, who likely detonated himself together with Bakraouis, has yet to be identified.

Surprisingly, it was published over the weekend that Abdeslam was cooperating with his investigators and disclosed to them details about another ISIS cell that is planning an attack. At first, they believed that Abdeslam was cooperating in hopes that they would not extradite him quickly to France, where he can expect much harsher treatment from French intelligence investigators. Now, the impression arises that Abdeslam’s lawyers’ talk of him cooperating was a hidden message to his comrades on the outside that they should hurry up and carry out their plans. In any event, the amount of leaks that constantly emerge from Belgian media about progress of the investigation also does not point at organized or calculated management.

Three men who are suspected of taking part in the attacks at Belgium's Zaventem Airport. The man at right is still being sought by the police, while the two others were suicide bombers.
AFP

Nearly two years since the shooting attack by Mehdi Nemmouche that killed four people at the Jewish Museum in Brussels, the Belgians have failed to adapt their security service operations to the new reality of terror being carried out by local citizens. Rivalry between a host of local and federal police organizations and the two security services, all of them subordinate to government ministries and other local authorities, makes it very hard to share information and divvy up authority in sensitive investigations of terror organizations. A Western intelligence source said recently that more than once information has gone faster between Belgian groups via the French government than directly.

The attacks also focused attention on security at airports on the continent. The procedure by which entry to the check-in area at a terminal does not require passing through a security point or security check allowed the Bakraoui suicide bombers and Laachraoui to enter the terminal with suitcases containing the bomb. In countries well versed in airport terror, like Israel and Turkey, anyone entering the terminal has to pass security guards or a baggage check. In major Western airports, the tendency is to allow passengers to flow in as quickly as possible, even at the expense of security, and they make due with patroling policemen and sometimes also with bomb-sniffing dogs. The explosion at Zaventem Airport is likely to change this.

All the question marks concretize how at least in Belgium, if not the rest of Europe, many security organizations have yet to go through the necessary phase to meet the challenge that ISIS presents.

An injured man gestures outsude Brussels airport after explosions rocked the facility, March 22, 2016.
AP