- Series of assaults this year has links to France's neighbor
- Two Paris attackers suspected to have been living in Brussels
The deadly violence in Paris on Friday is the latest in a series of attacks with strong links to Belgium, adding to mounting evidence the country has become one of the main havens for radicalized young men intent on terrorizing Europe.
As French investigators try to piece together the identity of radical networks responsible for the bloodiest act of terrorism in Europe in a decade, it emerged that two of the killers were Frenchmen who had been living in Belgium. Since Friday night’s attacks, police have detained seven other people in Brussels who they suspect have links to the atrocity.
“Recruiting networks center around Belgium,” David Gartenstein-Ross, a counter-terrorism specialist at the U.S.-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said by telephone on Sunday. Authorities will be questioning “whether militants consider Belgium to be a more permissive environment” and whether there is “a community of extremists who can move relatively undetected.”
Wedged between the euro area’s two largest economies of France and Germany, Belgium has for decades been best known for its chocolate shops and breweries, attracting tens of thousands of tourists every year to its cobbled streets and sidewalk cafes. Now it’s facing up to a grim new reality: the country also is a playground for terrorists.
“The terrible attacks that were directed against us on Friday were prepared abroad by a group of individuals based in Belgium who, as the investigation will show, benefited from accomplices in France,” French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said in Paris on Sunday.
Even before Friday’s attacks that killed at least 129 people, governments and counter-terrorism authorities were pointing fingers at Belgium. At the start of the year, Belgian prosecutors said they suspected that at least one of the gunmen who killed 17 people in three days of attacks in and around the French capital, including nine journalists at satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, had been in contact with an arms dealer in Belgium.
Later that month, Belgian police killed two suspected terrorists and arrested a third in a shootout in the eastern town of Verviers that they said prevented a major attack on law-enforcement officers.
In August, a Moroccan gunman was overpowered by passengers on a train en route to Paris. The man had spent some time in Brussels and had gotten on board in the Belgian capital with a backpack containing a Kalashnikov rifle, an automatic pistol, ammunition and a knife. He was known to Belgian intelligence services, the government said.
“In the past year, we’ve had about every single month an attack or a foiled plot either in Belgium or France, which shows we’ve entered another chapter in European history in which stronger efforts to cooperate and share intelligence will be key,” Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel told public broadcaster RTBF on Saturday.
Belgian authorities stepped up security and intelligence-gathering last year after a French gunman killed four people at Brussels’ Jewish Museum. Investigators said the assailant had spent most of 2013 in Syria and prepared his attack from a furnished rental room in the Brussels district of Molenbeek.
“We try to have a clear vision of the networks, and try to eradicate that,” Belgian Foreign Minister Didier Reynders told reporters in Brussels on Monday.
The Belgian government says 400 people have left the country to fight in Syria, which represents the largest proportion per capita of any European country, according to the London-based International Center for the Study of Radicalisation. Of those who have already returned, many are “very dangerous” and came back “on a mission,” Belgian Interior Minister Jan Jambon told an audience in Brussels last week.
Many more fail in their attempt to make it to Syria to fight with ISIS but find “they can do it here in Belgium” instead, Jambon said.
The Belgian federal prosecutor’s office said two of the killers who died in Friday’s attacks have been identified as French citizens who lived in Brussels. A total of seven people in Belgium are being held in connection with the Paris attacks, the prosecutor’s office said. French police said on Sunday they were searching for 26-year-old Belgium-born Abdeslam Salah in connection with the attacks. A road patrol may have stopped and checked a car containing Salah and let him go, prosecutors said late Sunday.
Two cars licensed in Belgium were found near the attack sites in Paris, Belgian prosecutors said. They had been rented in Brussels at the start of the week. A person who had rented one of the autos was detained by police on Saturday after being spotted on the A2 freeway driving from France to Belgium, according to the prosecutor’s office.
Belgian police were carrying out a new operation in Molenbeek Monday morning, including police special forces, Belga newswire reported.
While authorities across language-divided Belgium have had some success in preventing radicalization and stopping men traveling to Syria, there is still a problem in Brussels itself. Part of that is down to the structure of policing, Jambon said last week.
“Brussels is a relatively small city, 1.2 million,” he said at an event organized by Politico. “And yet we have six police departments, 19 different municipalities. New York is a city of 11 million. How many police departments do they have? One.”
Jambon, who met with France’s Cazeneuve on Sunday in Paris, told VRT television that when it came to preventing radicalism, some local authorities in Brussels “have been rather lax in this respect for many years.”