Security noose may have prompted Brussels attacks
BRUSSELS - After the arrest in Brussels of Salah Abdeslam, suspected of being involved in the Paris terror attacks, European authorities knew that retaliatory assaults might be only a matter of time.
“We know that stopping one cell can… push others into action. We are aware of it in this case,” Belgian Interior Minister Jan Jambon told public radio on the eve of the March 22nd suicide bomb attacks that killed more than 30 people at Brussels Airport and Maelbeek metro station in the centre of the city close to European Union buildings. The country was on high alert, he said.
The same day Belgian prosecutors identified two men they said were accomplices of Abdeslam in the Paris attacks and Paris prosecutor Francois Molins said Abdeslam had admitted he wanted to kill himself with an explosive suicide vest in Paris but had “backed out”.
Belgian Foreign Minister Didier Reynders said a network of more than 30 people had been found to have been involved in the November 13th Paris attacks, which killed 130 people.
“He was ready to restart something in Brussels,” Reynders said of Abdeslam. “We have found a new network around him in Brussels.”
The words of Abdeslam’s lawyer Sven Mary would also have given cause for alarm to any jihadist would-be attackers at large.
“He is collaborating. He is communicating. He is not maintaining his right to remain silent,” Mary told Belgian public broadcaster RTBF.
The fear that police and counterterrorism officers could be about to close in on Islamic State (ISIS) cells in Brussels could have spurred the militants into action just days after Abdeslam’s arrest, security analysts said. ISIS claimed responsibility for the Brussels bombings.
“It could be that the operation was planned for a while, for weeks or months but they decided to carry out the attacks now… because they were afraid Abdeslam was going to give information to the authorities or in a way to avenge the arrest,” Lorenzo Vidino, an expert on extremism at George Washington University, told the BBC.
“It is also very possible that the extremist network wanted to act before security agencies acted on information divulged by Abdeslam, who is known to have backed out of a suicide attack and may have been considered by his erstwhile co-conspirators as likely to cooperate with authorities,” Jason Burke, an expert of terrorism and Islamic extremism, wrote in the Guardian newspaper.
The Paris attacks and Brussels bombings highlight failures by security and intelligence services within Europe to share information with agencies in other EU countries or sometimes even within the same country.
“There are problems of coordination within the Belgian government and different police agencies, problems of coordination with France, with other countries,” Vidino said.
After the Paris attacks, the Belgian manhunt focused on Abdeslam’s home neighbourhood of Molenbeek in inner city Brussels. Despite the presence of EU and NATO headquarters, sociologists say central Brussels more closely resembles some US cities — where a shattered, poverty-stricken centre is surrounded by rich suburbs — rather than the expensive central parts of Paris and London.
“That they could sit for four months, not only in Belgium but in Brussels and especially in Molenbeek, and plot these kinds of attacks just four days after the arrest of such a high-level network facilitator — this is shocking to me because they should have been on the highest level of alert,” Clint Watts, a former FBI and US Army counterterrorism official and expert on ISIS, told NBC News.
“After [Abdeslam’s] arrest, you would have to assume everyone in the network was preparing to launch whatever they had,” Watts said.
Belgian jihadist analyst Pieter Van Ostaeyen said the attacks were not a surprise. “I had expected that something would happen but not on this scale. This is really highly coordinated,” he told Belgium’s Het Nieuwsblad newspaper. The attacks were most likely a response to the counterterror operations and were probably “pulled together at very short notice”.
Analysts said Abdeslam and other militants have tapped into criminal networks within the large immigrant population of Molenbeek as well as others who may have been sympathisers, but had no direct link with ISIS or other jihadist groups. The scale of the networks and the number involved have overwhelmed the under-resourced intelligence and security apparatus.
“It is clear from the amount of time Abdeslam spent on the run that he was looked after by dozens, if not scores of contacts. This is the reality of contemporary Islamic extremism in Europe. It is not about so-called lone wolves or solitary actors, but about a small but significant number of people who are deeply embedded in broader communities or neighbourhood,” Burke said.
“It’s fair to say that Belgian authorities have been overwhelmed by the number of individuals linked to ISIS,” said Vidino. “It’s a tiny law enforcement, intelligence community that is not coping with the disproportionately high number of individuals who belong to ISIS or espouse ISIS ideology.”