The Cable

Arrest of Belgian Suspect Brings (Much Needed) Relief to Brussels

The arrest of Mohamed Abrini, a key suspect in terrorist attacks in March in Brussels and November in Paris, is a long-awaited and much-needed break for Belgian authorities who posted a “wanted” bulletin for the man nearly five months ago.

Belgian Federal Magistrate Eric Van Der Sypt talks to the media at the Palace of Justice in Brussels, on April 8, 2016 following the arrest of a key Paris attacks suspect. 
Key Paris attacks suspect Mohamed Abrini was arrested along with four other people in a series of raids on April 8 also linked to the deadly Brussels airport and metro bombings, the federal prosecutor's office said. Abrini, a Belgian of Moroccan origin, was seen at a petrol station north of Paris two days before the attacks with other top suspect Salah Abdeslam, who drove one of the vehicles used in the November 13 assaults across Paris that killed 130 people. / AFP / THIERRY CHARLIER        (Photo credit should read THIERRY CHARLIER/AFP/Getty Images)
Belgian Federal Magistrate Eric Van Der Sypt talks to the media at the Palace of Justice in Brussels, on April 8, 2016 following the arrest of a key Paris attacks suspect. Key Paris attacks suspect Mohamed Abrini was arrested along with four other people in a series of raids on April 8 also linked to the deadly Brussels airport and metro bombings, the federal prosecutor's office said. Abrini, a Belgian of Moroccan origin, was seen at a petrol station north of Paris two days before the attacks with other top suspect Salah Abdeslam, who drove one of the vehicles used in the November 13 assaults across Paris that killed 130 people. / AFP / THIERRY CHARLIER (Photo credit should read THIERRY CHARLIER/AFP/Getty Images)

The arrest of Mohamed Abrini, a key suspect in terrorist attacks in March in Brussels and November in Paris, is a long-awaited and much-needed break for Belgian authorities who posted a “wanted” bulletin for the man nearly five months ago.

But it’s also a relief for Belgium’s political class, who have endured months of withering criticism from foreign governments and the international press for the perceived incompetence of its security services.

“Two … major players have been arrested this morning and we think that we are working on the right track,” Belgium’s Ambassador to the United States Johan Verbeke told a group of security officials and journalists Friday at the Wilson Center.

Verbeke scheduled the meeting before the arrests, as a way to defend the image of Belgium’s security services against a bevy of criticism over failures to foil the March 22 plot in Brussels, which killed 32 people and injured hundreds more.

French officials had accused Belgium of allowing Islamic extremists to take root in densely-packed immigrant districts like Molenbeek. Turkish officials accused the country of ignoring warnings it gave about one of the suicide bombers at the Brussels airport. Western counterterrorism experts pointed to Belgium’s complicated patchwork of security and police services as its failure to coordinate and, potentially, deter potential threats. And mainstream media accounts described the country as both a “terrorism hotbed” and “failed state.”

Verbeke said Friday it was time to stop relying on crude “stereotypes” and broad “generalizations” about Belgium’s role as a security partner.

“If there is one party among the European members that is really pushing … to coordinate and work together [on intelligence-sharing] it’s the Belgians,” he said.

He cited Belgium’s role in pushing for a continent-wide Passenger Name Record database for screening potential terrorist suspects, as well as a “panoply” of legislative efforts related to phone-tapping and weapons trafficking to disrupt terror plots. He also noted that Belgium is one of the five countries that make up 85 percent of contributions to a Europe-wide database dedicated to tracking foreign fighters.

On the problem of radicalization within Belgium’s prisons, Verbeke noted new efforts to segregate inmates who exhibit extremist qualities to limit recruitment efforts. While praised by some, the tactic of creating a “prison within a prison” worries some experts who fear it will reinforce an inmate’s radical narrative, convincing him or her that the institution is at war with Islam.

Regardless, none of Belgium’s recent efforts is likely to boost the country’s image among security critics more than the arrest of Abrini, arguably the most-wanted terrorist suspect in Europe.

According to reports, Belgian officials suspect Abrini was the attacker wearing a light-colored jacket who fled the national airport following the suicide bombings there. Another man suspected of assisting the attacks at the Maelbeek subway station was also arrested, according to reports. Put together, the two arrests constitute one of the biggest breakthroughs for Belgian authorities since attacks were carried out.

Publicly, Belgian authorities confirmed that Abrini was the man in the light-colored jacket on Saturday, showing an abundance of caution after previously misidentifying the third bomber. (A man named Faycal Cheffou was charged and arrested following the attacks, but was later let go after it became clear he wasn’t at the airport when they were carried out.)

John McLaughlin, the former deputy director of the CIA who served before and after 9/11, told Foreign Policy that Belgium’s security woes are giving him a “strong sense of deja vu.”

“Their experience feels like what we were going through after 9/11,” he said. “We were cooperating with our agencies better than most people believed we were, but not as good as we needed to.”

He said Belgium could make improvements in harmonizing its databases of criminal and terrorist suspects, but overall believes the country is on the right track.

“This is an uphill struggle,” he said.  “But I think they’re making progress.”

This post has been updated.

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John Hudson is a senior reporter at Foreign Policy, where he covers diplomacy and national security issues in Washington. He has reported from several geopolitical hotspots, including Ukraine, Pakistan, Malaysia, China, and Georgia. Prior to joining FP, John covered politics and global affairs for the Atlantic magazine’s news blog, the Atlantic Wire. In 2008, he covered the August war between Russia and Georgia from Tbilisi and the breakaway region of Abkhazia. He has appeared on CNN, MSNBC, BBC, C-SPAN, Fox News radio, Al Jazeera, and other broadcast outlets. He has been with the magazine since 2013. @john_hudson

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