One of the Brussels attackers was caught in Turkey in June last year and deported to the Netherlands as a foreign fighter, but Belgium let him loose, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said yesterday (23 March).
Erdoğan said Turkey warned both Belgium and the Netherlands that he was “a foreign fighter”.
He did not name the attacker, who he said was detained at Turkey’s border with Syria at Gaziantep.
Erdoğan said: “Despite our warnings that this person was a foreign terrorist fighter, Belgium could not establish any links with terrorism.”
An official in the Turkish president’s office later said the attacker deported from Turkey was Ibrahim El Bakraoui.
Earlier reports suggested Ibahim el-Bakraoui was deported to Belgium, but this was later corrected to the Netherlands.
Belgium’s Justice Minister Koen Geens denied however that the 30-year-old Belgian citizen had been flagged as a possible terrorist.
“At that time, he was not known here for terrorism,” Geens told VRT television. “He was a common law criminal out on parole.”
Flemish public broadcaster VRT said Ibrahim El Bakraoui had been released from a Belgian prison in 2014 after serving four years of a 10-year sentence for armed robbery. He skipped two probation meetings last June and was ordered to return to prison in August. But police could not find him.
The case highlighted the problem Belgium has faced with some 300 locals who have fought in Syria, the biggest contingent from Europe in relation to its national population of 11 million.
Foreign Minister Didier Reynders, leading efforts to counter international criticism of Belgian policies toward containing violent extremists among its Muslim community, which makes up about 5% of the population, said security had to be balanced with civil rights.
Erdoğan is at odds with the EU over terrorism. He claims that the EU has shown no solidarity with the terrorist attacks in his country and that Europe was “dancing in a minefield” by directly or indirectly supporting “terror” groups, such as the Kurdish PKK.
Three suicide bombers who struck Brussels airport and a metro train in attacks claimed by the so-called Islamic State were identified Wednesday (23 March), as the manhunt for a fourth man whose suitcase bomb failed to detonate intensified.
Prosecutors said brothers Ibrahim and Khalid El Bakraoui had carried out attacks at Zaventem airport and Maalbeek metro station, while bomb-making expert Najim Laachraoui was identified by police sources as the second airport bomber.
Authorities stepped up the manhunt for a third airport attacker, seen wearing a hat and white jacket on CCTV footage from Zaventem departure hall, whose explosive-packed suitcase failed to go off with the two other suicide bombers.
The three identified suspects behind the twin assaults, which so far have killed 31 and injured 300, have been linked to the Paris attacks last November, underscoring the threat European nations face from the jihadist group.
Prosecutor Frederic Van Leeuw revealed that Ibrahim had left a desperate “will” on a computer that he dumped in a trash can, in which he said he felt “hunted” and added “I don’t know what to do”.
In an apparent reference to Salah Abdeslam, the key suspect in the Paris massacre arrested in Brussels on Friday (18 March), Ibrahim added: “I don’t want to end up in a cell next to him.”
‘Long Live Belgium’
Belgium has declared three days of mourning and on Wednesday hundreds of airport staff and their families carried candles and flowers in a silent march and vigil near Zaventem.
“It could have happened to me,” said security guard Gregory Lupant, adding he was worried about colleagues “who had not been heard from, and others who had lost a leg or finger.”
Earlier in the day, King Philippe, Prime Minister Charles Michel and European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker led a minute’s silence at the EU headquarters in Brussels, the city that is also home to NATO.
In the city’s Place de la Bourse, where mourners have laid banners and candles, defiant applause broke out among the large crowd gathered to honour the dead, chanting: “Long live Belgium”.
But the attacks have raised troubling new questions about Belgium’s ability to handle the jihadist threat, already under scrutiny after it emerged that the Paris attacks were largely planned in Belgium.
Belgian authorities had already been hunting the Bakraoui brothers, both Belgian nationals with long criminal records, over their links to Abdeslam.
They issued a wanted notice for Laachraoui on Monday (21 March), the day before the attacks, with officials saying he had travelled to Hungary with Abdeslam last year and that his DNA was found on explosives linked to the Paris rampage.
In a raid on Tuesday night investigators found a bomb factory in an apartment near where Ibrahim’s computer was left in the Brussels district of Schaarbeek, an area that has links to Abdeslam.
They found 15 kgs of TATP high explosive, chemicals and detonators, Van Leeuw said. Prosecutors said on Tuesday an unexploded bomb, an IS flag and bomb-making materials had been found.
Belgian Foreign Minister Didier Reynders said the attacks, the worst in the country’s history, had killed or wounded people of around 40 nationalities.
The dead include a Peruvian mother of twin girls, one of whom was injured by flying debris in the airport attacks.
The health ministry said late Wednesday that the number of people injured had climbed from 270 to 300, of whom 61 were in critical condition.
Authorities are under immense pressure over their apparent inability to smash extremist networks in Belgium, Europe’s top exporter of jihadist fighters to Syria per capita.
Leaders across Europe have reacted with outrage to the bombings, with the EU calling an emergency meeting today of interior and justice ministers, vowing to defend democracy and combat terrorism “with all means necessary”.
Brussels airport announced it would stay shut until at least Saturday (26 March) while investigators continued to comb through the wreckage.
The city’s subway system partially reopened, although rush-hour crowds were thinner than usual and soldiers were checking passengers’ bags.
“I’m a bit afraid, especially for my little brothers,” said 18-year-old Dominique Salazar as she took her siblings to school. “But we don’t have any other choice to get around.”
US President Barack Obama urged nations to unite against terrorism and said wiping out Islamic State was his “top priority”.
White House hopeful Hillary Clinton took a harsher tone, criticising Europe’s intelligence cooperation, saying it “still lags” despite pledges made after last year’s Paris attacks.
“There’s also more they can do to share the burden with us,” Clinton added.
US Secretary of State John Kerry is to visit Brussels on Friday to offer Washington’s support and issue condolences.