Brussels Attacks: What the Belgians Missed – The Atlantic

There are several reasons for this. Belgium, which my colleague David Graham described as “a fragile artificial creation, riven between French- and Flemish-speaking citizens,” not unlike the Middle East, has been described as “a nation without a state.” And like the Middle East—and unlike the Europe in which it sits—illegal weapons are readily available, a legacy of the conflict in the Balkans in the 1990s.

Belgium has a weak central government and several powerful local municipal entities that are often at odds with one other. This spawns a gigantic bureaucracy. The Brussels area, where 1 million people live, is governed by 19 municipalities and is served by six police forces, each of which answers to a different mayor. Their actions are often hampered by rules such as no police raids between 9 p.m. and 5 a.m.—rules that could politely be called comical.

The case of the Abdeslam brothers is a case in point. They’d been on the radar of at least one Belgian intelligence service as far back as July 2014. Another Belgian intelligence service, however, said it became aware of them only in January 2015—six months later. The brothers were among the terrorists who struck Paris on November 13, 2015, and one of them, Salah Abdeslam, is believed to have been the only survivor. Abdeslam spent the next few months on the run. Belgian authorities came close to capturing him once, two days after the Paris attacks, but couldn’t raid the apartment in Molenbeek in which he was believed to be holed up because of the restrictions on when police can carry out raids. By the time they made it to the apartment, Abdeslam was gone. When he was eventually captured last Friday, four months later, he’d been hiding under everybody’s noses: in Molenbeek.

After the Paris attacks, Committee P, a government agency that serves as the police watchdog, identified several “deficiencies and weaknesses” in how authorities handled information on the Paris attackers. RTBF, the Belgian state broadcaster, reported that the watchdog cited several reasons for the failure, including technological ones. “Certain IT problems were not resolved,” it said, according to RTBF, and the watchdog criticized a lack of “qualified personnel.” Another issue was one of information-sharing: a nom de guerre used by one of the Paris attackers featured in several Belgian police databases, but not in the central one, the watchdog said. Then there are more mundane—but possibly more serious—problems, including misspelled names in terrorism databases that prevent efficient information-sharing not only in Belgium, but across the EU. All of which leads to Tuesday and Brussels.


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