It seems Belgium has its own catch & release program for suspected terrorists. Brace yourself. The Wall Street Journal reported several cases of Belgian authorities dropping the ball when it came to nabbing those responsible for bombing an airport and subway last week:
European counterterrorism agencies have been on high alert since the November attacks in Paris, where the radical group proved it could strike hundreds of miles away from its strongholds in Syria and Iraq. Using Belgium as a staging ground, the group deployed operatives who were deft at crossing borders and blending in with the masses.
Then, like a modern-day Hydra, Islamic State militants regrouped successfully to plot the Brussels attacks right under the noses of the authorities, who are now ruing the missed signals. The attackers went back and forth between multiple hide-outs and a bomb laboratory with chemicals stockpiled in industrial proportions, at precisely the same time police were combing the neighborhood in search of militants tied to the Paris attacks.
Belgian authorities are now under growing pressure to explain a string of missteps that depict a chaotic counterterrorism apparatus unable to process even basic information and keep track of dangerous criminals...
In one of the starkest examples, local Belgian police in the town of Mechelen said Friday they had the address of a possible safe house of alleged Paris attacker Salah Abdeslam in their files since December but didn’t upload the information into a national police database.
Mr. Abdeslam, allegedly the logistical chief of the operation in Paris, which killed 130 people, was captured March 18 at that address after eluding Europe’s security dragnet for four months.
The Belgian government has also admitted to missing an opportunity to arrest one of the three men named as Brussels suicide bombers, Ibrahim el-Bakraoui.
When Turkey informed Belgium it had apprehended Mr. Bakraoui near the Syrian border last summer, Belgian authorities didn’t seek his arrest or list him as a potential terrorist, even though Mr. Bakraoui was a convicted criminal who had violated his parole. While the two countries spent eight months debating his significance, Mr. Bakraoui flew to the Netherlands as a free man and vanished.
The other two suicide bombers in Brussels, Najim Laachraoui and Khalid el-Bakraoui, Ibrahim’s younger brother, were known by police for their alleged implication in preparations for the Paris attacks. Both men were targets of international arrest warrants on terrorism charges.....
The police and judicial failures have triggered a political crisis in Belgium and are a chilling reminder how Brussels has become a hub for militants planning attacks in Europe.
“If you put all facts together, you can indeed put a lot of question marks with what happened at the justice department and police,” Belgian Justice Minister Koen Geens said earlier this week....
The Paris attacks have exposed wider intelligence breakdowns across Europe, which allowed dozens of militants trained or inspired by Islamic State to crisscross the continent, often with fake documents....
The first sign that Mr. Laachraoui, one of the Brussels suicide bombers, might have radicalized came slightly more than three years ago through a phone call.
Mr. Laachraoui was a Belgian national born in Morocco in 1991. In February 2013, he briefly contacted his parents and said he had reached Syria.
The family informed Belgian police, according to Mourad Laachraoui, a world-class taekwondo fighter and the younger brother of the suicide bomber....
The brother said family members neither heard from Najim Laachraoui again nor anything about him until his name was mentioned by investigators trying to unravel the Paris attacks.
At the time of the tip from Mr. Laachraoui’s family, Sunni insurgents in Syria and Iraq hadn’t yet announced the creation of the Islamic State caliphate. Their ability to lure foreigners was widely overlooked in European capitals.
Nevertheless, Belgian authorities responded to the information about Mr. Laachraoui by launching a judicial investigation, eventually accusing him of being a key recruiter of youth from Brussels for extremist groups in Syria.
The Bakraoui brothers grew up in Laeken, a predominantly Muslim and working-class neighborhood adjacent to the industrial shipping canal that runs through Brussels...
Both boys piled up criminal records as they grew older. The older brother, Ibrahim el-Bakraoui, robbed a Western Union branch in Brussels in 2010, spraying gunfire at police from a Kalashnikov as he attempted to flee, according to his lawyer at the time and government officials.
Mr. Bakraoui was caught and sentenced to 10 years in prison. In 2014, he was released with an obligation to contact his parole officer once a month. He fulfilled that obligation until May 2015.
Khalid el-Bakraoui’s multiple criminal convictions included armed carjacking in 2011, according to the lawyer and authorities. The lawyer described him as having a “forceful personality” but “not at all radicalized” at the time.
After serving their respective prison terms, the two brothers moved back home in 2014, according to Mr. Karroum, the mosque president. They had to wear electronic monitoring bracelets that limited their movements.
When the electronic-bracelet requirements ended several months later, Khalid got married and moved to a different neighborhood to live with his wife, Mr. Karroum said.
Ibrahim stayed at home and came to prayers at the mosque from time to time. He was polite but spoke to few people, according to Mr. Karroum.
By last summer, though, Ibrahim el-Bakraoui had apparently turned toward radicalism and Islamic State, Belgian officials say.
Messrs. Geens and Jambon, Belgium’s justice and interior ministers, said at a parliamentary hearing Friday that Turkish authorities informed a Belgian liaison officer that they had detained Ibrahim el-Bakraoui in the Turkish town of Gaziantep on June 11.
Gaziantep is about 10 miles from the Syrian border and has been one of the gateways used by foreigners to reach Islamic State territories. Three days later, the officer passed on the information to Belgium’s counterterrorism unit. The officer’s name hasn’t been publicly disclosed.
The counterterrorism unit replied with a request for more details on why Turkey had detained the Belgian national, the two ministers said.
For the next eight months, Belgian and Turkish officials grinded away in a lengthy correspondence focused on what kind of threat Mr. Bakraoui represented. A formal answer, according to the Belgian ministers, only came in January of this year, when Turkey told the liaison officer that Mr. Bakraoui was suspected of links with Islamic State.
By then, Mr. Bakraoui had disappeared. On July 14, he boarded a flight to the Netherlands. Neither Dutch nor Belgian authorities sought to detain or question him.
Belgium’s justice and interior ministers said earlier this week that Belgian authorities had grounds to arrest Mr. Bakraoui because he had been violating his parole since May. But his name wasn’t added to Belgium’s national list of fugitives until the end of August, the ministers said.
At Friday’s hearing, Mr. Jambon, the Belgian interior minister, blamed the liaison officer for his lack of diligence.
“We can’t but conclude that not a service, a direction, but one person has been negligent,” he told lawmakers Friday. “A convict who spends years in prison, then goes to the Turkish-Syrian border…You don’t have to be familiar with terrorism for a long time to see that the chance is 90-95% that you are dealing with a foreign fighter.”
It isn’t clear why Belgium’s counterterrorism unit didn’t draw the same conclusion.
Turkish officials said they had shared their suspicion with Belgium that Mr. Bakraoui was a radical soon after he was detained and before he flew to the Netherlands. On Friday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan accused Belgium of dropping the ball.
“Such incapable governments,” he said. “We detained this guy in Gaziantep, we deported him and sent him back. Those gentlemen didn’t do what was necessary and released the terrorist.”
According to French and Belgian prosecutors, Mr. Laachraoui used a false Syrian passport last year to sneak back from Islamic State-controlled territory into Europe via Hungary. Mr. Laachraoui’s fake passport didn’t raise suspicion.
Authorities learned the information while investigating the Paris attacks. Investigators now suspect Mr. Laachraoui may have helped the Paris attackers make explosives because his DNA was found on several suicide vests used in the French capital.
Investigators also suspect Khalid el-Bakraoui relied on a fake identity to rent at least one house used by the Paris attackers in Belgium. That led Belgium to issue an international arrest warrant for Mr. Bakraoui in December.
In Brussels, the remaining members of the network set out to demonstrate that their violent potency was intact. At about 7 a.m. Tuesday, Ibrahim el-Bakraoui, Mr. Laachraoui and an unidentified man got into the taxi in Schaerbeek.
The three men arrived at the airport and walked into the busy hall. Two steered their carts toward check-in counters, according to security footage, while the third man abandoned his luggage and dashed. Shortly before 8 a.m. twin blasts plunged the airport into chaos.
“The third bomb exploded before we could try to defuse it,” Frédéric Van Leeuw, Belgium’s federal prosecutor, told The Wall Street Journal. “Without the perspicacity of someone who checked the security footage, it would have killed dozens of police officers, firefighters and emergency doctors. That was probably the goal.”
At about 9 a.m., Khalid el-Bakraoui detonated the bomb he was carrying in a bag at Brussels’s Maelbeek metro station, killing himself and more than 20 passengers.... Rest of article.