Brussels Attacks Highlight Breakdown In Belgian Intelligence
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
The attacks in Brussels yesterday were the work of a network that included two Belgian brothers. Belgian investigators say the two had been known to police because of their criminal records, though neither of the men had known ties to terrorism or to radical Islam.
Their suicide attacks at the airport and on the metro killed more than 30 people and injured more than 250 others. The inability to stop this attack or recognize the threat that the two men presented is symptomatic of a larger problem in Belgium. NPR's counterterrorism correspondent Dina Temple-Raston reported from Belgium after the November Paris attacks, and she's with us now.
And, Dina, we know that the police are pursuing a number of suspects, but what can you tell us about these two brothers?
DINA TEMPLE-RASTON, BYLINE: Well, Belgian officials confirmed the identity of the brothers today. The first is Ibrahim el-Bakraoui. He was 29 years old, Belgian and had a long rap sheet that included armed robbery. In fact, in 2010, he was sentenced to nine years in prison. It's unclear how much of that sentence he actually served.
And then his brother, Khalid, is 27 years old, and he was found guilty of gun possession and carjacking a year after his brother was found guilty in 2011. So it's - and again, it's unclear if he ever served time for that crime.
SIEGEL: And how did the police identify the brothers?
TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, their identities were confirmed by fingerprints. Ibrahim was one of the suicide bombers at the Brussels airport, and Khalid was on the Metro train. And there are also reports that Turkish officials had stopped Ibrahim el-Bakraoui last June, possibly en route to Syria, and they deported him. But we haven't been able to confirm that.
SIEGEL: Yeah. And just to be clear, the - as you said, the Belgian authorities said they knew of no link between him and terrorism.
TEMPLE-RASTON: That's correct. That's what we've heard so far.
SIEGEL: Two recent attacks attacks in Paris have been linked to Belgium, and now there's this attack. Why is Belgium such a hotbed of terrorism?
TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, for years, Belgium was dealing with a homegrown radical group called Sharia4Belgium. It's since been banned, but quite a few lost young men - petty criminals, immigrants nursing resentments - have found their way to the group, and many of them then ended up in Syria. Belgian officials say, 79 of the Belgians who traveled to Syria to fight were linked to Sharia4Belgium. In fact, they say the group is part of the reason why, on a per capita basis, Belgium is the No. 1 source of Western fighters going to Syria and Iraq.
And the numbers, actually, are quite stunning. More than 500 people have left Belgium to join the fight, and about 120 have returned. And I spoke to a US official close to this investigation, and he says part of the problem had been that Belgian police were willing to turn a blind eye to those who were leaving because most of them were criminals, like the el-Brakraoui brothers, and the thinking was, you know, good riddance; they'll probably get themselves killed on the battlefield, and then they won't be our problem anymore.
SIEGEL: Instead, they returned to Belgium with some experience of the battlefield, perhaps.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Exactly. And trying to follow that many returnees is nearly impossible. I mean, the rule of thumb is that you need 10 to 12 people to watch someone around the clock, and Belgium just doesn't have that manpower. They don't have the intelligence capability to keep track of who's coming and going, either. And that's one of the reasons that they've reached out to U.S. officials to help them track the people that they think might be involved in these latest attacks because they just don't have the resources to track them down.
SIEGEL: Dina, you've reported from Molenbeek, a neighborhood in Brussels that's very close to the center of the city but considered a very-very tough neighborhood and very central to all this.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Very central to all of this. So, one way or another, almost everybody who's been involved has a connection to that neighborhood. And I was speaking with someone who had done a lot of de-radicalization work there. And there's a Turkish community there, and there's a Moroccan community there. And he said the Turkish community has had little trouble assimilating, but the Moroccan community has been rocked by crime.
There are not only gangs, but if you look at the rap sheet of the el-Brakraoui brothers, you know, they're very violent offenses - shooting at a police officer during armed robberies, carjacking. And those are the kinds of crimes that they're dealing with in the neighborhood. So people there are really hunkered down.
So when - you could see how someone who offers you a free trip to somewhere like Syria and says this is a place where you can basically act like a criminal without any consequences, it could look pretty good to some people.
SIEGEL: OK, Dina. Thank you
TEMPLE-RASTON: You're welcome.
SIEGEL: That's NPR counterterrorism correspondent Dina Temple-Raston.