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Belgium’s Deadly Circles of Terror

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Coordinated bombings in Brussels may have been in the works for some time, aided by an underworld where crime and extremism blur together
By Sebastian Rotella

Over the past several months, Belgian counterterror officials told me they were working nonstop to prevent an attack and that the danger had never been so high. Today, their worst fears came true when coordinated bombings struck the airport and a subway stop in Brussels.

As part of my work on a forthcoming ProPublica/Frontline documentary about the terrorism threat in Europe, I traveled recently to Belgium to investigate the nation’s central role as a staging ground for the Paris attacks four months ago.

“It is just a matter of time before terrorists will succeed in attacking Belgium,” federal prosecutor Eric Van der Sypt told me weeks ago in Brussels.

The concerns of Van der Sypt and other officials were driven by events as well as surveillance of suspects in Belgium and Syria. In December, Belgian police prevented two alleged plots, one by the remnants of the Belgian-led group that hit Paris in November and another by a radicalized motorcycle gang, the Kamikaze Riders. In the ensuing months police pursued fugitives linked to the Paris attacks and intercepted menacing phone chatter and WhatsApp chats filled with photos of jihadis posing with guns, camels and corpses in Islamic State’s dominions in Syria.

In one intercepted phone call to Brussels, a Belgian militant in Syria discussed his friend Bilal Hadfi, a Belgian suicide bomber who died in Paris in November, according to counterterror officials. The militant’s mother warned him not to do bad things like his friend Bilal or she would pray for him to go to hell. The militant asked what the friends were saying about Bilal back in the “sector,” the tough Molenbeek suburb of Brussels where many of the Paris attackers grew up.

“Are they talking about him? Are they praising him? Are they saying he was a lion?” the militant said. “For them, the jihad is all about recognition on the street, in the neighborhood, the glory,” a counterterror official told me.

The Islamic State claimed responsibility for the Brussels attacks. Investigators are trying to determine whether the perpetrators were part of the group of Belgians who provided support for the Paris plot. At least two suspected Paris plotters had remained on the run after the arrests of Abdeslam and another suspect.

“We think there was a bomb maker who survived, someone who had put together the vests in Belgium, and we don’t think it was one of those who died in Paris,” a senior French counterterror official told me before the Brussels attacks. “Usually they don’t want to lose someone with those kinds of skills in an attack.”

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It is also possible a separate cell carried out the attack in Brussels. A Belgian counterterror official cited intelligence reports that 180 European operatives were trained by the Islamic State and deployed back to their home countries during the past year. Some of those operatives, including at least three of the Paris attackers, used fraudulent passports to pose as Syrians and concealed themselves in the chaotic flow of refugees and migrants across the European Union’s borders.

Officials describe the threat in Belgium as concentric circles: Hundreds of hard-core terrorists intent on striking Europe after express training by the Islamic State in what a captured French suspect des-cribed to interrogators last year as a “factory of terrorists” in Syria. Extremists willing to fight and die without leaving home. Gangsters who drink and gamble, yet support the Islamist cause with guns, cash, cars and documents. And loose networks of petty criminals and associates willing to shelter notorious fugitives like Salah Abdeslam, the suspected Paris attacker arrested last recently in his native Molenbeek.

The size, volatility and street gang-like mentality of that underworld help explain how Abdeslam dodged authorities for four months – and how bombers eluded secu-rity forces on high alert and struck the Brussels airport and a subway stop near the European Union headquarters today. The estimated casualty count so far: more than 30 dead and 230 wounded. The convergence of crime and extremism has reached dangerous levels in Belgium but reflects a larger European security challenge.

“You have so many people who are adrift, who are involved in common crime and decide terrorism is a shortcut to paradise,” said Dolores Delgado, a chief counterterror prosecutor in Spain. “It gives them a chance to get revenge on society. It is a virtual army of people who follow a demented ideology whether they go to Syria or remain here.”
France and Belgium are the top targets because they have sent so many fighters to Syria, where they train with thousands of French-speaking jihadis from Tunisia and Morocco. The Belgian counterterror official said: “When the recruits arrive in Syria, they are asked, ‘Do you want to fight here or go back home to Europe to be a martyr?’ If they want to go back to Europe, they are given express training, a week of arms and explosives, then sent back. It’s as quick as possible.”

The coordinated attacks on the airport and the subway appear to have been in the making for some time, officials said.


Terror Bruises Brussels

Brussels was the scene of multiple explosions on March 22, highlighting the persistent vulnerability of soft targets to simple, effective attacks—as well as the willingness and capability of militants in Western Europe to undertake those attacks

Belgian authorities have confirmed that at least 13 people were killed and more than 35 others were injured in twin blasts at Brussels’ Zaventem airport. An initial explosion took place near the American Airlines check-in counter. A second device then reportedly detonated near the Brussels Airlines ticket counter. Shortly thereafter, another explosion was reported at the Maelbeek metro station, close to the heart of Brussels and EU institutions. As a precaution, all metro and rail services in Brussels have been suspended, according to AFP, and flights have been diverted away from the city. The Belgian government has raised its official alert level to 4, the highest level.

The Brussels blasts are a striking reminder of the difficulty of preventing attacks against soft targets. Unlike hard targets, which tend to require attackers to use large teams of operatives with elaborate attack plans or large explosive devices to breach defenses, soft targets offer militant planners an advantage in that they can frequently be attacked by a single operative or small team using a simple attack plan. In addition, attacks against transportation-related targets such as metro stations and airports allow attackers to kill large groups of people and attract significant media attention.

Militants have long targeted the soft area outside airports’ security sectors. For example, a Palestinian militant group known as the Abu Nidal Organization attacked ticket desks in Rome and Vienna in December 1985, and a ticket desk at Los Angeles International Airport was attacked by a gunman in July 2002. In 2011, a bomb attack at Moscow’s Domodedovo International Airport killed 35 people and injured more than 160. The departure and arrival areas outside of airport security usually provide a sizable pool of potential victims who can be attacked without having to sneak wea-pons past security. This is why travelers should minimize the time they spend on the “soft” side of the airport.

The Brussels attacks come in the wake of the March 18 arrest of Salah Abdeslam, a surviving member of the cell that conducted the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, in the city’s Molenbeek neighborhood. There have been media reports that Abdeslam was planning additional attacks in Europe, and Belgian officials were seeking two of his associates. It is unknown if those associates were involved in the Brussels attacks or if the attacks were conducted by other operatives. Brussels has been a hotbed of jihadist activity, and there are many Belgian citizens fighting with the Islamic State, Jabhat al-Nusra and other jihadist groups in Syria and other theaters of jihad. In June 2014, a gunman associated with the Islamic State attacked the Jewish Museum in Belgium. Most notable, much of the planning for the November attacks in Paris was also conducted in Belgium, and Belgian officials have braced for additional attacks inside the country.

The March 22 attacks were simple but effective, in part because they were directed at people concentrated in restricted spaces — an optimal place to create a high body count with a small suicide device. Targeting the American Airlines ticket counter is quite symbolic, indicating that it was likely an attempt to kill U.S. citizens.

Courtesy: Stratfor


The timing, however, may have been driven by fears that the arrests recently would expose other militants operating underground in Belgium, especially if Abdeslam and the other suspect cooperated with investigators.

“I don’t think the attack was organized quickly as revenge for (Abdeslam’s) arrest,” said Delgado, the Spanish prosecutor. “The alert has been at a high level ever since the Paris attacks. It could be that they sped up a plot because they thought Abdeslam might collaborate. But their overall goal is to spread terror and chaos.”

The fugitive Paris suspects and Brussels’ bombers benefited from the support of an underworld where crime and extremism increasingly blur together, making the threat even harder to identify. The phenomenon exists also in France, Denmark and other nations with sizeable populations of working-class, alienated children and grandchildren of Muslim immigrants. But it has reached dangerous extremes in Belgium. An increasing number of recruits and supporters of the Islamic State are violent criminals who radicalize rapidly, yet don’t necessarily adhere to a fundamentalist lifestyle.

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The Kamikaze Riders are a prime example. Their profile is rare in the world of Islamic extremists: a motorcycle gang with all the trappings of that subculture, yet radicalized and was implicated in a plot for an attack in December.

In Belgium, gangsters often provide crucial support to terrorist operations without even bothering to maintain a veneer of piety. Police describe robberies of fast food stores and drug dealers that, after further investigation, turn out to be done to finance trips to join the jihad in Syria. Even supposed hardcore Islamists break the rules: In calls caught on a wiretap, investigators listened to a veteran Brussels extremist scold his daughter for wearing a short skirt, then borrow money from friends and arrange for the services of a transvestite prostitute, officials said.

Referring to some of the Paris plotters, a Belgian counterterror official said: “These guys are not stereotypical Islamists. They gamble, drink, do drugs. They are lady killers, wear Armani, fashionable haircuts. And they live off crime.”

Petty criminals, friends and relatives, mostly of Moroccan descent, helped the clean-cut Abdeslam live underground in the capital despite an aggressive dragnet. They were motivated by family and friendship ties and a deep-seated hostility toward mainstream society that often doesn’t have much to do with religion.

“When you do a raid on a house, in normal areas people talk or help if they think someone was a terrorist,” Van der Sypt said. “People are not collaborating in Molenbeek. They are throwing stones at the police. It has created a community of people who don’t go to school anymore when they are 11 or 12. They are very good criminals as teenagers. They become kingpins at 18.”

Once again after the recent attack, Belgian police were kicking down doors in search of fugitives suspected in the airport bombing. At least one fugitive was said to be on the run, and police found bomb-making equipment and an Islamic State flag during a search.

“We have to develop a new mentality because the profiles have changed so much,” Delgado said. “Immediately people start talking about bombing Syria, about war overseas. But the terrorists live in the West.”

Courtesy: ProPublica

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1 COMMENT

  1. IS could not become what it did without support of jihadis to unseat Assad.

    https://consortiumnews.com/2016/09/29/how-the-us-armed-up-syrian-jihadists/

    How the US Armed-up Syrian Jihadists

    The
    West blames Russia for the bloody mess in Syria, but U.S. Special
    Forces saw close up how the chaotic U.S. policy of aiding Syrian
    jihadists enabled Al Qaeda and ISIS to rip Syria apart, explains
    ex-British diplomat Alastair Crooke.

    https://sofrep.com/63764/us-special-forces-sabotage-white-house-policy-gone-disastrously-wrong-with-covert-ops-in-syria/

    US Special Forces sabotage White House policy gone disastrously wrong with covert ops in Syria

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