Belgium Risks Fractious Politics After Intelligence Blunder

  • Government under pressure over failure to act on Turkish tip
  • Concerns about possible `war' among the police services

Belgium risks a renewed bout of fractious politics as the government prepares to explain how it failed to act on a tip from Turkey about one of the attackers in this week’s terrorist bombings and authorities widened the hunt for other suspects.

Laurette Onkelinx, a Socialist member of the Belgian parliament, said the Liberal-led government of Prime Minister Charles Michel will be grilled by lawmakers about why it lost track of Ibrahim El Bakraoui, one of three suicide bombers who struck Brussels on March 22. Turkey told Belgium in mid-2015 that El Bakraoui, who once served time in a Belgian prison for armed robbery, had been arrested near the Turkish border with Syria.

In linguistically divided Belgium, the pressing question is whether there is a “war” among the police services, Onkelinx, a former Belgian deputy prime minister, told broadcaster RTBF on Friday in Brussels. Belgian Justice Minister Koen Geens said “there is enormous political pressure” on the government, according to news agency Belga.

The revelation of valuable intelligence information gone to waste has revived impressions of a dysfunctional Belgian state and rattled a government seeking to restore order after 31 people were killed and more than 230 injured in the worst terrorist assault in Belgium’s history. Geens and Interior Minister Jan Jambon tendered their resignations on Thursday -- offers that Michel rejected in the immediate aftermath of the bombings -- and are due to appear at a parliamentary hearing on Friday afternoon in Brussels.

Bomb-Filled Bag

Brussels police late Thursday detained six people in raids related to the probe of the attacks, according to federal prosecutors, who are looking for a man pictured on airport CCTV with two of the suicide bombers on Tuesday morning and believed to have departed the premises after leaving behind a bomb-filled bag. The searches were conducted in central Brussels and in the neighborhoods of Jette and Schaerbeek, which is an area linked to preparations for the November 2015 attacks in Paris that killed 130 people.

A seventh person was detained early on Friday during a separate search in the Forest borough of the Belgian capital, according to RTBF, which didn’t say how it got the information.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is visiting Brussels on Friday to pay his respects to the victims of the bombings and to take part in counter-terrorism talks with European Union and Belgian officials.

“We will not be intimidated, we will not be deterred and we will come back
with greater resolve, with greater strength,” Kerry told reporters during the stopover on his way back to Washington from Moscow.

At an emergency meeting on Thursday in Brussels, EU interior ministers pledged to step up surveillance of would-be terrorists and plug holes in criminal databases.

Also on Thursday, French police arrested a man in suburban Paris who was in an “advanced stage” of planning a terror attack, said the country’s interior minister, Bernard Cazeneuve. Police on Friday were searching a building in Argenteuil, about 15 kilometers north-west of Paris, the Interior Ministry said. According to France Info radio, the police found Kalishnikov assault rifles and explosives similar to those used in last November’s Paris attacks.

The man is a French citizen and, “at this point, no tangible element links this project to the attacks in Paris and Brussels,” Cazeneuve said. According to France Info, the arrested man is 34 years old, has spent time in Syria with militant groups and has been condemned in absentia to 10 years in prison by a Belgian court for his role in recruiting foreign fighters.

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