- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 24, 2016

Major security lapses in the days and weeks before Tuesday’s terrorist attacks in Brussels grew all the more glaring Thursday with the revelation that Turkish authorities had twice deported one of the suicide bombers at the center of the carnage on suspicion that he was an Islamic State foreign fighter.

While a massive manhunt continued for at least two people thought to be directly involved in the triple bombing attack, Belgium’s interior and justice ministers offered to resign. They acknowledged that top officials failed to act expeditiously on leads including Turkey’s request last year to take custody of Ibrahim El Bakraoui.

El Bakraoui and his brother Ibrahim were among the three suicide bombers responsible for the explosions that killed at least 31 people and injured more than 300 in Brussels. Authorities have identified the third suicide bomber as Najim Laachraoui, a Moroccan-born Belgian and suspected bomb maker for European plots by the Islamic State, also known as ISIS and ISIL.

Two other men, one seen on closed-circuit television moments before the airport bombings and another believed to have played a role in the subway explosion, have not been identified. Authorities said neither was killed in the bombings, and an intense manhunt remained underway across Brussels on Thursday night.

Six people were detained in late-night raids Thursday across the Belgian capital, as French authorities also grabbed a man suspected of plotting an imminent attack.

French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said the arrest in the Paris suburb of Argenteuil was not linked “at this stage” to the Brussels attacks, but the man, who was not identified, was in the “advanced stages” of a terrorist plot.

The Brussels raids took place in the central part of the city and in its Jette and Schaerbeek municipalities, areas where huge stashes of explosives and bomb-making material were found.

Investigators are convinced that all five of the Brussels attackers are part of the same Islamic State network involved in the November strikes that killed 130 people at a stadium, rock concert and cafes in Paris.

During the lead-up to the Brussels attacks, Salah Abdeslam, thought to be the lone surviving member of the 10-man team of terrorists in Paris, was arrested in Brussels. Authorities said they uncovered evidence of ties between him and at least three of the Brussels attackers.

However, Abdeslam, also a Belgian citizen of Moroccan descent, reportedly claimed he was not aware of the plot to attack Brussels four days after his arrest, despite evidence that the men who carried out the attacks had shared hideouts with him.

An attorney for Abdeslam, who was summoned to appear in a Brussels court Thursday morning, said his client simply “didn’t know” of the plot.

Europe on edge

Fears are mounting that more attacks may be coming in Europe.

Islamic State propaganda arms claimed responsibility for the attacks in Paris and Brussels. A Twitter feed tied to the terrorist group warned: “What will be coming is worse.”

The Brussels carnage has driven intelligence officials to warn that the Islamic State footprint in Western Europe is far greater than previously believed. Linkages between those who carried out the Brussels and Paris attacks have exposed the existence of what some analysts are calling a jihadi “supercell” operating between France and Belgium and possibly beyond.

Such claims have added a twist to the European Union’s heated immigration debate, which has been inflamed by the surge of Muslim refugees flowing toward Europe in recent years to escape the chaos that has allowed the Islamic State to thrive in Syria, Iraq and parts of North Africa.

Most international estimates are that nearly 2 million Arabs and North Africans have migrated to Western Europe since 2014.

Political fallout from the Brussels violence is being felt across the Continent, where anti-immigrant hard-liners are ramping up their rhetoric and questioning whether the European Union’s fundamental values of open borders and solidarity can survive.

The Brussels attacks have sparked a pitched debate in Britain over whether the United Kingdom would simply be safer if it leaves the EU. Both sides in Britain’s June 23 referendum debate on whether to secede from the bloc say the attacks have strengthened their positions.

At the same time, many other nations are calling for closer security and intelligence-sharing ties among the EU’s 28 member states, and some have complained that the bloc has been reluctant to tackle Islamist radicals aggressively and effectively.

U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said Thursday that the bloodshed in Brussels emphasizes how Washington’s European allies should be doing more to fight the Islamic State alongside American efforts in the Middle East.

Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite slammed other European leaders for being “too naive” in the face of extremism. She said tougher measures are needed even if it means sacrificing some human rights.

“Our reaction must be adequate,” she said. “The time to complain about human rights has long since passed.”

French Prime Minister Manuel Valls, meanwhile, has demanded a “strong European response” to the Brussels attacks. But officials say many states, including France, withhold their most sensitive intelligence from one another despite an EU mantra of willingness to share information.

Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton on Thursday criticized the lack of cooperation among European countries. She said the EU lacked a system for exchanging air passenger data or a joint intelligence center to share information.

Major security lapse

While an intelligence-sharing debate looms, many point to specific security lapses in Belgium.

Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel promised during a national mourning speech Thursday to do everything possible to determine who was responsible for the Brussels attacks, but the message was overshadowed by news that two of the nation’s top security officials had tendered their resignations.

Mr. Michel declined the resignations of Interior Minister Jan Jambon and Justice Minister Koen Geens, who made the offers amid criticism over repeated opportunities to take into custody Ibrahim El Bakraoui after his capture and deportation by Turkish authorities last year.

“You can ask how it came about that someone was let out so early and that we missed the chance to seize him when he was in Turkey. I understand the questions,” Mr. Jambon said. “In the circumstances, it was right to take political responsibility, and I offered my resignation to the prime minister.”

Turkish officials said Ibrahim El Bakraoui, 29, was expelled in July after he was arrested at Gaziantep near the Syrian border and again in August after he returned to Antalya. Belgian and Dutch authorities were notified of Turkish suspicions that he was a foreign fighter trying to reach Syria.

At the time, Belgian authorities replied that El Bakraoui, who skipped parole after serving less than half of a nine-year sentence for armed robbery, was a criminal but not a suspected terrorist or militant.

Officials in the Netherlands, where El Bakraoui was flown from Turkey, offered a similar explanation Thursday.

In a letter to parliament, Dutch Justice Minister Ard van der Steur said El Bakraoui was put on a plane from Istanbul to the Dutch capital July 14, but that Turkish officials didn’t say why and his name wasn’t flagged in any Dutch law enforcement databases.

The minister also said El Bakraoui had a valid Belgian passport when he arrived in Amsterdam, “so there was no reason to take any action.”

It wasn’t clear what El Bakraoui did after arriving in the Netherlands.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Wednesday that Ibrahim El Bakraoui, was caught in June near Turkey’s border with Syria and deported, at his own request, to the Netherlands, with Ankara warning Dutch and Belgian officials that he was a “foreign terrorist fighter.”

The Dutch version of events appeared to contradict Mr. Erdogan. Mr. Van der Steur said an electronic message from the Turkish Foreign Ministry to the Dutch Embassy in Ankara gave no information about the reason El Bakraoui and an unidentified German national were put on the flight.

A senior official from Turkey’s ruling party said Belgian authorities should have treated Turkey’s warnings over one of the Brussels attackers with “more sensitivity.”

Omer Celik, a spokesman for Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s Justice and Development Party, said the fact that Turkey had warned Brussels about the bomber should “put to shame” countries that accuse Ankara of supporting the Islamic State group.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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