Belgium not cooperating with US on counter-terror efforts, official says

The brush-off was one small sign of mounting US frustration over Brussels' handling of its worsening Islamic militant threat.

By REUTERS
March 24, 2016 07:27
A man reacts at a street memorial following Tuesday's bomb attacks in Brussels

A man reacts at a street memorial following Tuesday's bomb attacks in Brussels. (photo credit: REUTERS)

Shortly after last November's attacks on Paris by a Brussels-based Islamic State cell, a top US counter-terrorism official traveling in Europe wanted to visit Brussels to learn more about the investigation.

When the official tried to arrange meetings, however, his Belgian counterparts were not welcoming, according to US officials familiar with the events. The Belgians indicated it was a bad time to speak to foreign officials as they were too busy with the investigation, said the officials, who asked not to be identified.

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Belgian officials declined to comment on the incident.

The brush-off was one small sign of mounting US frustration over Brussels' handling of its worsening Islamic militant threat.

Concern that the small European nation's security and intelligence officials are overwhelmed - and that its coordination with allies falls short - have again come to the fore following the Islamic State-claimed attacks on Tuesday that killed at least 31 people.

Several US officials say that security cooperation has been hampered by patchy intelligence-sharing by Brussels and wide differences in the willingness of different agencies to work with foreign countries, even close allies.

One US government source said that when American investigators try to contact Belgian agencies for information, they often struggle to find which agency or part of an agency might have relevant information.

Belgium has ordered a sharp increase in security budgets following the Paris attacks, despite being under steady pressure to limit its debt levels under euro zone rules. The government has promised to recruit around 2,500 more federal police, who pursue major crimes, to make up for a shortfall of close to a fifth of the full-strength force of 12,500.

It also says it thwarted a major attack in January 2015, and is eager to cooperate with European and US counterparts.

"These attacks show that more coordination with the United States is clearly desirable," Guy Rapaille, the president of the committee that provides oversight of Belgium's security and intelligence services, told Belgium's state broadcaster RTBF.

"But you have to remember that big powers guard their intelligence very closely."

US officials acknowledge the recent Belgian efforts to step up funding and recruitment.

Yet they say Belgian security services are outmatched by the threat in a country that, per capita, has supplied the highest number of foreign fighters to Syria of any European nation.

"They're way behind the ball and they're paying a terrible price," Rep. Adam Schiff, ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, told Reuters.

Asked on Wednesday whether Belgium was too complacent over the threat posed by Islamic militancy, State Department spokesman Mark Toner said:

"I want to stay clear of saying that Belgium was somehow caught by surprise or not aware. You know, we collaborate, we work with Belgium closely."

Some US counter-terrorism officials say much of the gap between Washington and Belgium - and some other European countries - is cultural. Europeans' deeper commitment to personal privacy sometimes prevents or delays sharing of information such as travel data -- that is taken for granted in the United States.

After the September 11, 2001 attacks, the US government radically reshaped its counter-terrorism agencies. It broke down walls between law enforcement and intelligence authorities, and created new coordinating institutions such as the Director of National Intelligence and National Counterterrorism Center.

Belgium, by contrast, is a patchwork country divided between French and Dutch speakers and with multiple levels of government.

Belgian security chiefs have repeatedly complained that they cannot handle up to 900 home-grown Islamist militants, among the highest per-capita rates in Europe. Belgium does not divulge the exact number of personnel in its security services and military intelligence, but security experts say they appear under-resourced compared to European counterparts.

"Add to that the problem of two languages (French and Flemish), lack of Arabic speakers, and weak coordination between national and local government, you have a huge discrepancy between threat and response," said former CIA official and White House advisor Bruce Riedel, now at the Brookings Institution.

Erdogan: Belgium ignored Turkey's warning about bomber

One of the attackers in the Brussels suicide bombings was deported last year from Turkey, and Belgium subsequently ignored a warning that the man was a militant, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said on Wednesday.

Erdogan's office identified the man as Ibrahim El Bakraoui, one of the two brothers named by Belgium as responsible for the attacks that killed at least 31 people in Brussels on Tuesday and were claimed by the Islamic State group.

In previous cases, officials have said that without evidence of crime, such as having fought in Syria, they cannot jail people deported from Turkey. Among such cases was Brahim Abdeslam, one of the suicide bombers in Paris in November, who was also sent back to Belgium from Turkey early last year.

Erdogan told a news conference that Bakraoui was detained in the southern Turkish province of Gaziantep near the Syrian border and was later deported to the Netherlands. Turkey also notified Dutch authorities, Erdogan said.

A Dutch government official said Erdogan's comments were "being carefully looked into," but that they could not yet say if El Bakraoui had been in the Netherlands.

"One of the attackers in Brussels is an individual we detained in Gaziantep in June 2015 and deported. We reported the deportation to the Belgian Embassy in Ankara on July 14, 2015, but he was later set free," Erdogan said.

"Belgium ignored our warning that this person is a foreign fighter."

Erdogan's office confirmed that Bakraoui was deported to the Netherlands. It said he was later released by Belgian authorities as "no links with terrorism" were found. It was not clear when Bakraoui was handed over to Belgian authorities.

Erdogan initially said Bakraoui was deported in June. His office later said he was detained in June and deported in July.

Belgian newspaper Le Soir quoted Justice Minister Koen Geens as confirming Bakraoui was deported to the Netherlands. Geens' spokesman could not be immediately reached for comment.

The attacks in Brussels came just days after a suspected Islamic State suicide bomber blew himself up in Istanbul's most popular shopping district, killing three Israelis and an Iranian and wounding dozens.


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