Busted Scanner, Lack of Manpower: How Belgium Police Missed the Brussels Attack

Shortage of manpower, funds cited as major problems for authorities – scanner in the police department monitoring jihadists was unfixed since 2014, preventing transfer of information.

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Police control the access to Brussels central train station following Tuesday's bomb attacks in Brussels, Belgium, March 23, 2016.
Police control the access to Brussels central train station following the bomb attacks in Belgium, March 23, 2016.Credit: Reuters
Shlomo Papirblat
Shlomo Papirblat

BRUSSELS – The evidence and testimony now being heard at a parliamentary inquiry into March’s deadly terror attacks in the Belgian capital suggest that lapses by the authorities were far more serious than even their harshest critics had believed.

Leaks from the inquiry, which started Sunday, are currently being published in the Belgian media. They indicate that a report by the independent body that monitors the Belgian police, Comité P (Committee P), strongly criticized shortcomings in the transfer of intelligence related to terror suspects among the various units.

Belgian police conducting searches for possible terror suspects in Brussels' Molenbeek district, where the Abdeslam brothers grew up.Credit: Reuters

It also states one of the alleged reasons: The scanner in the department monitoring jihadists broke down sometime in 2014 and was not repaired due to lack of funds. Consequently, some 20,000 documents containing potential information on the suspects was not scanned or processed.

Another paragraph in the same report claims that, in July 2014 – long before the terror attacks in Paris (last November) and Brussels – a police investigator received information from a source in Molenbeek (the Brussels suburb now known to be a jihadist hotbed). The informer, a relative of the Abdeslam family, told the officer that the two brothers Salah and Brahim Abdeslam had become jihadists and were discussing preparations for an attack planned by Abdelhamid Abaaoud (the terrorist behind the Paris attacks; he was killed on November 18, during a raid on an apartment in Saint-Denis).

The investigator, who was on sick leave at the time, told the report’s authors that she had passed on the information that same evening to members of the counterterrorism unit in Brussels – but nothing was done about it; the information was simply filed away. The reason? A manpower shortage.

The shortage of manpower and budgets comes up repeatedly in the reports submitted to the government inquiry, along with stories to the effect that the situation is about to get even worse because “dozens of professionals want to leave the counterterrorism units – due to growing frustration following the attacks on them by various groups.”

A photo of Paris attack suspect Salah Abdeslam, released by the French police.Credit: Twitter screenshot

Harsh criticism was also leveled at the authorities’ response to the Brussels Airport attack in Zaventem. It transpires that an attempt to summon reinforcements of rescue forces, medical teams and ambulances to the airport was turned down. A document given to the inquiry committee by Cécile Jodogne, the secretary of state for fire and emergency medical assistance, reveals that the commanding officer of the rescue units (SIAMU) was in Zaventem that very morning, March 22. About 15 minutes after the two explosions rocked the departure hall, he understood the severity of the situation and immediately contacted the rescue center in the nearby town of Leuven, requesting assistance. The response he received (which was recorded and saved) was, “There are currently sufficient means on the ground.”

Only about an hour after the attack, with dozens of the wounded bleeding in the airport and after the commanding rescue services officer had contacted the top authorities, did reinforcements of ambulances and medical teams finally arrive from Leuven to Zaventem. In her report comments, Jodogne noted “an underestimation of the seriousness of the situation.”

Meanwhile, a Flemish-language newspaper, Het Laatste Nieuws, claims that a man “who confessed that he decapitated someone in the service of the Islamic State group in Syria is walking around free” in Brussels.

The newspaper said Iliass Khayari, 25, had been arrested by police upon his return from Syria and was brought before a Brussels court a few days ago. However, even though Khayari was found guilty of belonging to a terror group, and although the security services have a recording in which he confesses to decapitating someone “because he was a heretic, an enemy of Allah,” the judge decided to release him pending sentencing. The state prosecutor’s office, which requested detention until the end of the trial, is submitting an appeal.

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