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Homeland Security

Belgium Detains 3, Ties Airport Bomber to Paris Attack

by Cindy Saine March 25, 2016

Belgian prosecutors say three people have been detained in a counterterrorism operation in Brussels prompted by the arrest Thursday of a Frenchman in the Paris area suspected of plotting a new attack.

The Belgian prosecutor's office confirmed in a statement that Friday's arrests were conducted in three districts of the capital – Schaerbeek, Forest and Saint-Gilles. Two of the three suspects were wounded in the leg.

The statement also said that investigators used DNA tests to determine that Naijm Laachraoui was one of the suicide bombers who blew himself up in the Brussels airport on Tuesday.

Laachraoui was also linked to the November 13 Paris attacks, in which 130 people died. His DNA was found on a suicide vest and a piece of cloth discovered at the Bataclan concert hall where 90 people were killed.

Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel rejected resignations offered by Interior Minister Jan Jambon and Justice Minister Koen Geens.

Michel skipped a wreath-laying ceremony at the Brussels airport with the departing U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry because of the ongoing police raids.

Kerry offers condolences

Kerry was in Brussels for talks with the Belgian leaders as well as European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker about the attacks.

A senior U.S. official confirmed that two Americans were among the more than 30 people killed. Kerry did not provide any details, other than to say one of them was a personal trainer, on her way back to the United States for Easter.

Kerry said the U.S. and coalition members have a message for anyone who would kill and wound innocent civilians going about their everyday lives: "We will not be deterred. We will come back with greater resolve, with greater strength, and we will not rest until we have eliminated your nihilistic beliefs and cowardice from the face of the Earth."

Kerry met with Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel at the prime minister's residence. Michel thanked Kerry for his presence, and vowed to do his best to work with the U.S. and his European partners to prevent any future attacks.

Speaking with VOA and other reporters at a round table in Brussels, he declined to place blame on the Belgian government for not thwarting the attacks, saying, "Carping four days after the attacks is inappropriate."

Kerry said the U.S. and Belgium had already scheduled a number of counterterrorism training sessions.

Search for clues

Belgian authorities continue to search for clues to how the attacks happened even amid heightened security and an investigation of the Brussels-based militants that attacked Paris in November.

U.S. officials have told reporters that the brothers who carried out Tuesday's attacks, Ibrahim and Khalid El Bakraoui, were on the terrorism watch list in the United States.

Belgian federal prosecutors say six people have been detained for possible links to the attacks. The prosecutors said the raids that led to the arrests took place in central Brussels, Jette and Schaerbeek, the neighborhood where police found a stash of explosives earlier this week in an apartment used by the bombers.

French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve also said a French national was arrested Thursday and found to be in an "advanced stage" of planning a terror attack. Cazeneuve said the man was arrested early Thursday, and said police went back to search his home later that day. French officials said later that he has connections to the suspected ringleader of the Paris attacks of November 13.

Stepped-up efforts

Meeting Thursday in the shadow of the Brussels terrorist attacks, European Union Justice and Interior ministers vowed to deepen joint intelligence gathering and swiftly push through measures to share airline passenger information and step up the fight against terrorism.

"We don't need new plans, we need to fully implement the plans and measures that have been taken," said Interior Minister Ronald Plasterk of the Netherlands, which currently holds the European Union's rotating presidency.

Coming two days after the Brussels bombings that killed more than 30 people and wounded more than 260 others, the emergency meeting offered a stark counterpart to the EU's usually staid gatherings – especially since it took place near the Maalbeek metro station, one of the targets of the attacks.

"Everybody feels the attack on Belgium was an attack on Europe and the values we stand for together," Plasterk said. "Europe has been under attack before. But we've always defended liberty and democracy and we will do that together."

Under fire for security lapses

The meeting comes as Belgian authorities face growing criticism over security lapses, with more evidence of significant links between the Paris attacks in November and Tuesday's strikes in Brussels.

But Belgium is not the only country to face criticism.

"There is a lack of trust, otherwise things might have been predicted and then prevented," said European Home Affairs Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos.

Of the Brussels attackers, he added: "they were home-grown, but they were also quite well known to intelligence services. If we were sharing information, we might dissuade their actions. The same for the perpetrators of the attacks in Paris."

IS video about Brussels attacks

The Islamic State (IS) group, which has claimed responsibility for both attacks, released a video Thursday describing the Brussels strikes as a victory and urging its followers to wage jihad.

Critics are particularly questioning how the Brussels suicide bombers could have planned and carried out the attacks under the nose of Belgian authorities, since many had dubious backgrounds and links to the Paris attacks.

Brothers Khalid and Ibrahim El Bakraoui, two of the three suicide bombers on Tuesday, had criminal records but no known jihadist ties.

Turkish authorities say Ibrahim El Bakraoui was caught near the Syrian border in 2013 and extradited. Belgian's federal prosecutor's office has since said European and international arrest warrants were issued for Khaled El Bakraoui, in connection with the Paris attacks probe.

Najim Laachraoui, named by local media as the third suicide bomber, was stopped by Hungarian authorities last year driving in a rented car with Paris attacks suspect Salah Abdeslam.

Abdeslam is now in a maximum scrutiny prison in the Belgian town of Bruges and is expected to be eventually extradited to France. After initially resisting the move, his lawyer says he wants a speedy extradition to "explain himself."

Justice, interior ministers resign

Earlier in the day, Belgian justice and interior ministers tendered their resignations which were rejected by Prime Minister Charles Michel.

Speaking to local broadcaster RTBF, Justice Minister Koen Geens acknowledged Belgian authorities could have been faster in following up on information passed on by Turkey about Ibrahim El Bakraoui.

"The information was passed on, but we have not been diligent, or probably not diligent enough," Geens said.

But following the EU meeting, he said things were changing swiftly in terms of sharing information and joint investigations among European countries.

A case in point took place last week, when both French and Belgian police carried out raids of residences linked to where assailants of both the Paris and Brussels attacks are believe to have stayed.

'Almost inevitable'

Michael Hayden, former director of the U.S. National Security Agency, told VOA the Brussels attack was "almost inevitable."

"I realize that's a pretty dramatic word," Hayden said. "But if you look at what has happened...the soft targets, the transportation targets, the maximum civilian casualties, (it's) something we could see."

Hayden also said it is "certainly not the last" attack IS will carry out, saying the group has a "network that seems to be active and thriving in the heart of Europe."

The retired four-star general, who also headed up the CIA, said European intelligence and security agencies could do a better job at sharing information.

Counter-terrorism expert Thomas Reynard of the Brussels-based Egmont Institute, believes cooperation between French and Belgian police is often underestimated.

"It's not like we just started cooperation," he said. "Obviously cooperation between police, between intelligence services anywhere in the world – including often within one single country – is also difficult."

"So is this a case of perfect cooperation – definitely not," he added. "But what's important is these remain hiccups rather than a major lack of cooperation."

In mourning

In Brussels, there is little sign that the public is eager to place blame for the attacks.

Belgians observed another minute of silence earlier Thursday for the victims of the Brussels attacks.

Many also placed wreaths and candles in front of makeshift shrines at the Maalbeek metro station.

Asked whether Belgian authorities could have done more to prevent the attacks, state worker Griet Smaers said she didn't know.

"That's a question that will be answered in the next weeks and months," she added. "Right now, I just want to be here – this place where very weird and tough things happened."

Isabela Cocoli contributed to this report from Washington.

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