It is rather so unfortunate that Belgian law enforcement officials had Salah Abdeslam in custody and questioned the terror suspect for about one hour between the time of his arrest Friday and the Brussels attacks Tuesday.
The investigations was flawed because the authorities focused more on details relating to Abdeslam’s involvement in last November’s Paris terror attacks.
Despite the discovery of detonators, weapons, and Abdeslam’s fingerprints in a safe house days earlier and growing evidence that the Brussels terror network was stronger than previously understood, law enforcement officials only briefly questioned Abdeslam because he was still recovering from surgery after being shot in the leg during his apprehension, according to a senior Belgian security official, who asked for anonymity to speak about the investigation.
“He seemed very tired and he had been operated on the day before,” the official said, adding that law enforcement officials did not question him again before Tuesday.
“They were not thinking about the possibilities of what happened on Tuesday morning,” said a second source with knowledge of the process.
The decision of investigators to not focus on drawing out information from Abdeslam about imminent threats, as well as the admission after the airport and subway attacks that the suspected bombers had been known to law enforcement authorities, is sure to feed growing criticism of the Belgian government’s competence on counterterrorism.
“We must clearly address the shortcomings of the Belgian security services,” said Günther Oettinger, the European digital commissioner, told German newspaper Bild. “In Brussels alone there are several different police agencies, which do not cooperate sufficiently. This cannot continue.”
Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel and French President François Hollande held a celebratory press conference on Friday evening and praised their countries’ cooperation. Privately, Belgian officials crowed that, unlike French law enforcement officials, who had killed Paris terror suspect Abdelhamid Abaaoud following a manhunt in November, they had gotten their target alive.
During his short interrogation session Saturday, Abdeslam told investigators that he intended to blow up the Stade de France during the Paris attacks, but “changed his mind,” according to the Belgian security source. Law enforcement officials discounted the theory, believing instead that the detonators had malfunctioned in Paris and that the discovery of the new detonators proved he was planning another attack.
They hoped to investigate further, according to the source. But Belgian law enforcement officials said they think the public disclosure Saturday by French prosecutor François Molins about the interrogation prompted the attackers to speed up their plan.
“We would have had more time to prevent [the attacks in Brussels] had the French not leaked this to the press,” the source said.
Belgium’s Interior Minister Jan Jambon and Justice Minister Koen Geens offered this week to step down over mistakes in the investigations.
“I offered my resignation. Mr. Geens too. They were refused. We continue,” Jambon told Le Soir on Thursday. “There are two sorts of errors: At the level of justice and the level of the liaison officer in Turkey, which impacts the departments of interior and justice. But now, we continue to do our jobs.”