Security noose may have prompted Brussels attacks

Friday 25/03/2016
Belgian police officers taking position around Brussels Central Station

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.”