Belgian security services are under scrutiny after failing to prevent a March 22 attack
Prime Minister says attack means there was a failure, and Belgium must "draw lessons for the future"
Charles Michel says it's "easier to hide, to disappear" in Belgium because of its international institutions and character
Two weeks after the worst attack on his country’s soil since World War II, Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel tells CNN there are “successes” and “failures” in the fight against terrorism.
“I don’t accept the idea that a state such as Belgium would be a failed state” because of a terrorist attack, he told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour.
“We are a country that met successes in the fight against terrorism.”
“But there is a failure, just like 9/11 was a failure for the United States, just like London was a failure for the UK, Madrid was a failure for Spain.”
It was his first interview with international media since the March 22 attacks on a metro station and airport, which killed 32 people and injured more than 300.
Belgian security services have come under heavy scrutiny for their failure to thwart the attack, and for not catching Paris terror attacks suspect Saleh Abdeslam sooner. Belgian authorities captured him last month after a shootout in Molenbeek, an impoverished Brussels district that has also been home to several other terror suspects.
Two days after the Brussels attacks, Interior Minister Jan Jambon offered to resign after acknowledging missed opportunities to stop one of the suicide bombers, Ibrahim El Bakraoui. Michel rejected the resignation, and Jambon remains in office.
Michel defended his security services, saying investigators are working “day in, day out.” The Prime Minister conceded that just as there are “pre-9/11” and “‘post-9/11” times in the United States, Belgium will have “a before and an after March 22.”
“I think we mustn’t be afraid of the truth. We need to see what went right, what went wrong, where the failures were. And then draw lessons for the future.”
“It is our responsibility, and I am determined with my government to implement reforms.”
Belgium’s ‘institutional realities’
The self-examination that inevitably takes place after a terrorist attack has, in Belgium, focused on the country’s unique societal and linguistic constraints.
The country is firmly divided between its northern and southern halves, which speak Flemish and French, respectively.
After general elections in June 2010, the country went 589 days without a government, because bickering parties were unable to form a coalition.
And the country’s myriad and fractured police forces make information sharing a behemoth task.
“Of course in Belgium there are institutional realities – several national languages, administrative realities,” Michel said.
“But it is the case in most democratic countries in the world, where you’ve got local authorities, the federal state, the central state, etc.”
Nonetheless, the government must examine how to streamline the security services, he said.
“We’ll have to see how we can strengthen, bolster cooperation – have a better security service cooperation.”
“But what I’m saying is that our situation will not be an obstacle because everybody in Belgium wants to improve action capacity regarding security.”
Prime Minister Michel must grapple with an uncomfortable reality: Per capita, more Belgians have gone to fight with extremist groups in Syria and Iraq than from any other European country – about 500, according to the International Center for the Study of Radicalization. Among those was Najim Laachraoui, the suspected bomb-maker in the Paris attacks, who has been identified by authorities as one of the Brussels Airport suicide bombers.
The fact that Belgium is the seat of the European Union, and home to so many international organizations, also makes it more vulnerable, according to the Prime Minister.
It is “easier to hide, to disappear,” he said.
An escalating spat with Turkey
After the Brussels attacks, a war of words emerged between Turkey, the Netherlands and Brussels over Ibrahim El Bakraoui, one of two brothers that Brussels authorities say was a suicide bomber on March 22.
Turkish authorities said they caught Bakraoui trying to travel to Syria last July and deported him to the Netherlands.
The Dutch said that because there was no European or international notice at the time about Bakraoui, they did not detain him at Schiphol airport.
European nations, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan told Amanpour last week in Washington, were dropping the ball.
“The Netherlands nor the Belgians seem to have understood what ‘jihadist’ stands for,” he said. “We’ve been calling the nations for a common stance against terrorism. And many of the European member states seem to have failed to attach the significance that this call for action deserves.”
Prime Minster Michel responded.
“It is very surprising from a country such as Turkey and its President to see that if that person was dangerous, to (let) that person board a plane going to the Netherlands without Turkish officers, and without early information given on the fact that that person was about to arrive there and at that point.”
Nonetheless, he said, there will be a parliamentary investigation into “how communication was managed with Belgium and various countries including Turkey, and there will be full transparency.”