How Brussels bomber slipped past European intelligence
Authorities overlooked vital warnings after Ibrahim el-Bakraoui was deported by Turkey
Dutch justice minister Ard van der Steur answering questions about intelligence failures in the lead-up to the terrorist attacks in Brussels on March 22nd. Photograph: Bart Maat/EPA
Brahim el-Bakraoui (l) and Khalid el- Bakraoui: the bombers in the Brussels attacks. Photograph: Interpol/EPA
Belgian interior minister Jan Jambon. Photograph: Bruno Fahy
High alert at Brussels Central Station following attacks in the Belgian capital on March 22nd, 2016. Photograph: Emmanuel Dunand
At 10.14am on July 14th, 2015, Turkish officials sent two emails to two European embassies in Ankara: one to the Belgians and the other to the Dutch.
The emails warned that Ibrahim el-Bakraoui, then 28, a Belgian national, was being deported to the Netherlands. What happened next raises serious questions about the lack of a Europe-wide intelligence service.
El-Bakraoui had been picked up by Turkish police a few days earlier near the border town of Gazientep, better-known locally as Antep. It’s a well-known crossing into Syria for foreign fighters joining the Islamic State terrorist group. Turkey’s national intelligence agency says that some 3,000 jihadists used it in January and February of 2015 alone – a booming business that supports the local economy.
On the streets of Antep, Bakraoui would not have stood out. What’s surprising is that a man who turned out to have the lethal skills of a trained jihadist was arrested by the Turks almost like a runaway 16 year old. The other remarkable thing was that he opted to be deported to the Netherlands not Belgium, despite having been born in Brussels and carrying a Belgian passport. The Turks say it was immaterial to them which EU country he chose.
At 10.40am on July 14th, half an hour after the two emails were sent, el-Bakraoui was deported on a Pegasus Airlines flight from Sabiha Gökçen airport in Istanbul to Schiphol airport near Amsterdam. The Turks believed he was being sent into Dutch custody, probably before being passed on to Belgium. But that’s not what happened.
Intelligence failuresSince the bombs at Brussels airport and Maelbeek metro station on March 22nd, which killed 32 people (among them three Dutch) and injured 340, the Belgian and the Dutch governments have been examining the intelligence failures that allowed Ibrahim and Khalid el-Bakraoui, and “the man in the hat”, Mohammed Abrini, to carry out the attacks.
Demanding answers from their respective police, security and diplomatic services, Belgium’s interior minister, Jan Jambon, and Dutch justice minister Ard van der Steur uncovered a litany of embarrassments. On March 29th, van der Steur sent a 29-page briefing to Dutch MPs and answered 166 questions, only to be forced to issue a clarification the following day – because he had misidentified the source of important intelligence.
These accounts came at around the time former CIA director Michael Hayden warned that the standard of security services across Europe was “very uneven”. Germany, France and the UK had “very good” services, he said. Scandinavia’s were “good, but smaller”. About the rest, he was silent.
Not blacklistedSo, on the afternoon of July 14th, 2015, Ibrahim el-Bakraoui arrived at Schiphol. He had been deported from Turkey, but he was allowed to continue on his way. The Dutch say they had no reason to detain him. His name was not on any blacklist. He had a valid Belgian passport. And they had no request from Belgium to hold him – even though both countries’ embassies had apparently received emails from the Turks.
What happened to those crucial emails?
Timeline of failures of intelligence services
First, the email to the Belgians: according to Turkey, it was sent to the police liaison officer at the Ankara embassy. However, according to interior minister Jambon, it was not passed on to Brussels for six days, arriving on July 20th, by which time el-Bakraoui had long disappeared. In any case, they regarded him as a criminal not a terrorist. He was wanted in Belgium for jumping parole after serving less than half a 10-year jail sentence for armed robbery. The Turks’ warning that he’d been picked up as “a militant” near Antep apparently sounded no warning bells – if it was ever read.
The story of the Dutch email is even worse. According to van der Steur, although it was headed “Very Urgent”, those words were only visible when the email had been opened. In its subject box, it said only “Travel Timetable”. As a result, embassy officials “didn’t notice” the email.
In a context in which 33 people were deported from Turkey to the Netherlands in 2015 for suspected involvement in terrorism, Dutch embassy officials seemed to find it reasonable that not every email should be opened and read. Bizarrely, the minister seemed to have some sympathy in this case: “It would have to have been opened to see that the message was regarded as urgent,” he told MPs.
Contradictory tales“Brahim” el-Bakraoui duly arrived at Schiphol airport having been deported by Turkey. He had not been deported under escort, nor had there been a phone call from the Turkish authorities, say the Dutch. As a result, he walked through EU arrivals with his Belgian passport and disappeared.
The leader of the centre-left D66 party, Alexander Pechtold, was almost speechless: “I really don’t understand this . . . Was he collected at the airport? Did he get a taxi? Did he withdraw money from an ATM? This is essential information. We have none of it.”
For his part, van der Steur promised that practices at the Ankara embassy would be “sharpened up” and he had a dig at the agencies for which he himself was responsible, saying they should learn to be “more proactive, assertive and alert”. One way or another, el-Bakraoui was gone.
The next time the Dutch authorities heard of him was on March 16th, 2016, six days before the Brussels bombs.
The US authorities informed them that both Brahim and Khalid el-Bakraoui were being sought by the Belgian police – Brahim because of his “criminal background”, Khalid for “terrorism, extremism and recruitment”.
According to van der Steur, the Dutch passed this information – which he told MPs came from the FBI – to the Belgians the very next day, March 17th, at a face-to-face police liaison meeting at which the brothers’ “radical backgrounds” were discussed.
Asked subsequently about this meeting, however, the Belgian police federation issued a statement denying that the brothers were mentioned. There was no mention of an FBI warning either, it said. All that had been discussed was a shooting in Brussels on March 15th in which an Islamist gunman was killed.
These contradictory tales from two EU neighbours that allegedly co-operate in counterterrorism remain unresolved. The Dutch say they passed the information. The Belgians say they did not. On March 22nd, the Brussels bombs detonated.
However, for van der Steur – who remains in his post – the story became even more excruciatingly embarrassing.
Having briefed parliament on March 29th about the FBI warning, he was forced to issue a written clarification to MPs the following day – saying that the March 16th warning had not come from the FBI at all.
This time the problem was with the Dutch embassy in Washington. The liaison officer at the embassy had been given the message not by the FBI but by the intelligence division at New York City police department. That information was then passed on by the embassy to the Netherlands, inexplicably with no source attached.
Unchecked factsIn the Netherlands, it was “assumed” that it had come from the FBI. That assumption had become fact without anyone checking – to the extent that it was included in a ministerial briefing to parliament in the aftermath of a lethal bombing.
Coincidentally, it subsequently emerged that in September 2015, the FBI had, in fact, placed the el-Bakraoui brothers on its watch list – but not on a section accessible to the Netherlands, despite agreements on intelligence sharing.
As Dutch Christian Democrat leader Sybrand Buma commented, in reference to van der Steur: “This is the minister dealing with the most important thing we have: our safety and our ability to prevent terrorist attacks. We now have to realise he did not know what he was talking about . . .”