Several blunders by police in the lead-up to the terror attacks in Belgium may have cost 34 people their lives.
The first mistake made by authorities was a failure to share information that could have headed off the attack. A small town northeast of Brussels received a tip regarding the whereabouts of Salah Abdeslam, the subject of a massive, continent-wide manhunt following the attacks in Paris. But the police chief failed to pass on the address to counterterrorism authorities.
Yet those assurances came amid increasing details about bungled intelligence gathering in the months before Tuesdays attacks, with Belgian officials overlooking crucial information or simply failing to share it within the country’s highly fragmented policing structure. On Friday, the local police chief of Mechelen, a small city 13 miles northeast of Brussels, said his department had received a tip in early December—nearly four months ago—about the possible whereabouts of Salah Abdeslam, the sole surviving attacker from the Paris massacre on November 13, which killed 130 people. Abdeslam, 26, had slipped back into Belgium during the hours after the Paris attacks, then hid in his Brussels neighborhood of Molenbeek, evading street-to-street police raids for months. Last Friday, a SWAT team finally nabbed him—at the exact address that a relative of Abdeslam had given Mechelen police last December.
After Belgium’s Dutch-language media broke the news on Friday, Mechelen police chief Yves Bogaerts told reporters that it was not clear back in December that Abdeslam might be hiding at that address, so his small department had not passed the address to the federal anti-terrorism unit responsible for hunting him down. “There was no information deliberately withheld,” Bogaerts told reporters in Mechelen. “A mistake was made internally in the police force.”
Even more incredibly, once Abdeslam was in custody, authorities did not ask him about future attacks.
Abdeslam, believed to be the logistics chief of the Islamic State’s November attacks in Paris, was apprehended March 18, apparently spurring one of the Brussels attackers to write that he feared capture by the police. But after Abdeslam’s arrest, investigators concentrated solely on the Paris attacks. Abdeslam was questioned for two hours last Saturday, the day after he was captured in a raid at a Brussels safe house — and then no other discussions were held until after Tuesday’s attacks, when he refused to speak further, prosecutors said.
The failure to push Abdeslam for concrete intelligence — even as close associates were known to be on the loose — adds to an emerging picture of intelligence agencies, police forces and criminal investigators that repeatedly failed to take advantage of opportunities to avert the attacks on Tuesday, the worst single day of violence in Belgium since World War II.
Perhaps most damning, get a load of the explanation by Belgian interrogators on why they didn’t press Abdeslam for details on future attacks:
Sources told Politico that interrogators had questioned Abdeslam only once, on Saturday, and only for one hour. After that interrogation, Belgian Foreign Minister Didier Reynders said in a press conference that Abdeslam had told interrogators he had been ready to “restart something in Brussels.” Yet interrogators apparently hesitated in hammering Abdeslam for details. “He seemed very tired and he had been operated on the day before,” one unnamed official explained to Politico, while another said interrogators “were not thinking about the possibilities of what happened on Tuesday morning.”
Playing the world’s smallest violin is inadequate to describe how most of us feel about the terrorist’s well being.
“Not thinking,” indeed. Ultimately, that’s where authorities botched the investigation. No imagination, no thinking outside the box. Just a bunch of flat feet oblivious to the threat against their country.
As if to underscore the point, here’s strike three:
A third crucial error surfaced on Wednesday, when Turkish Prime Minister Recept Tayyip Erdogan told reporters that his country had warned Belgian authorities last summer that Ibrahim Bakraoui was a jihadist, after Turkish police arrested and deported him. Bakraoui, 30, was one of two men who blew themselves up in Brussels Airport on Tuesday, and his brother Khalid, 27, blew himself up in the Metro train car.
The Belgian people were ill-served by their first line of defenders.