Brussels terror: ‘Shocking’ level of unpreparedness by Belgium

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In the wake of November’s Paris attacks and amid ongoing threats, current and former U.S. and European counter-terrorism officials said they were taken aback by the “shocking” level of unpreparedness by Belgian authorities.

Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL) which carried out the Paris massacre of more than 200 people, claimed responsibility for attacks on March 22 at Brussels’ main airport and a metro station that killed more than 30 people.

Military guard the area at Zaventem Bruxelles International Airport in Brussels after a terrorist attack on March 22. /Sylvain Lefevre/Getty Images
Military guard the area at Zaventem Bruxelles International Airport in Brussels after a terrorist attack on March 22. /Sylvain Lefevre/Getty Images

Norwegian terrorism expert Thomas Hegghammer told NBC News that the March 22 attacks would be “a watershed” if they are linked to the same network responsible for the Paris attacks. “In the past,” he said, “nobody got to strike twice.”

Brussels, especially the Molenbeek neighborhood a few miles from the site of the subway strike, was described by one ex-official “as an explosive mix of highly capable foreign fighters trained by ISIL and sympathetic locals who are unknown to authorities but eager to help in attacks.”

Clint Watts, a former FBI and U.S. Army counter-terrorism official, said Belgian authorities should have been more prepared for the March 22 attacks.

“That they could sit for four months, not only in Belgium but in Brussels and especially in Molenbeek, and plot these kinds of attacks just four days after the arrest of such a high-level network facilitator (Paris terror suspect Salah Abdeslam) this is shocking to me because they should have been on the highest level of alert.

“It is hard to conceive that this would happen on such a large scale when it was so obvious that these guys were operating there. After [Abdeslam’s] arrest, you would have to assume everyone in the network was preparing to launch whatever they had.

“After the Paris attacks, it was a question of not being able to run all the leads down,” Watts said. “It’s no longer a capacity problem, it’s a competency problem.”

Frank J. Cilluffo, a former senior U.S. counter-terrorism official, said Brussels is “in essence the Ground Zero of European jihadism, there is no question about that. And the fact that [Abdeslam] was able to evade authorities for so long demonstrates the high level of support for their network in the community.”

Hegghammer said the Brussels attacks were troubling because local authorities were already engaged.

“This happened while the authorities were already on high alert and hunting intensively for suspects. We can say they were ‘maxed out’ on the investigation side, yet this still happened.”

Meanwhile, Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump said the United States needs more vigilance on Muslim immigrants who are secretive, refuse to assimilate and do not tip law enforcement to potential trouble.

After the March 22 attacks in Brussels, Trump tweeted: “Do you all remember how beautiful and safe a place Brussels was. Not anymore, it is from a different world! U.S. must be vigilant and smart!”

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