After Brussels, State Dept. Declines to ‘Give Europe a Grade’ For Counterterror Cooperation

By Patrick Goodenough | March 24, 2016 | 9:05pm EDT
A sign reads ‘Why?’ in English, French and Flemish, behind memorial candles and flowers near the Maelbeek metro station, bombed by terrorists on Tuesday, March 22, 2016. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner)

(CNSNews.com) – As questions swirl around self-admitted “errors” by authorities in the lead up to Tuesday’s terror attack in Brussels, the State Department on Thursday declined to “give Europe a grade” on its counterterror cooperation within the bloc or with the U.S.

But spokesman Mark Toner said the U.S. prior to the attack had “already seen a significant increase in coordination with our partners in Europe,” including information-sharing and adding suspects to watch lists.

“We all have to continue to increase our bilateral and our multilateral cooperation against terrorism,” he said. “And that’s partly just to close the gaps in our ability to identify these individuals and to prevent the next attack.”

The bombings that killed 31 people at Brussels airport and on a subway train have highlighted evident weaknesses in counterterrorism cooperation and liaison.

The Dutch justice minister confirmed Thursday that a Belgian-born suicide bomber involved in the attack had landed at Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport last July but was not arrested since his name did not appear on wanted terror suspects’ lists.

In a written statement to parliament, Ard van der Steur also said that a note at the time from the Turkish government – which had put Ibrahim el-Bakraoui on a flight from Istanbul to Schiphol – had given “no substantive information or guidance on the background” to its decision to deport him.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan stated earlier this week that Turkey had informed Belgium and the Netherlands at the time that the suspect, who had been arrested in a Turkish province bordering Syria, was a foreign terrorist fighter. Erdogan did not name Bakraoui.

Both the Dutch and Belgian governments have cast doubts on at least part of Erdogan’s claim – in van der Steur’s case saying the Turks had at the time provided no “substantive information” on its decision to deport Bakroui, whom he also noted had not been under an official escort when flown out of Turkey.

“Bakraoui had a valid Belgian passport,” the Dutch justice minister wrote. “He was not registered in the Dutch or international police or information services.”

Belgian Justice Minister Koen Geens said he was aware one of the Brussels attackers had been sent to the Netherlands from Turkey, but denied he had been flagged as a possible terrorist.

Still, both Geens and Belgian Interior Minister Jan Jambon offered to resign over “errors” leading up to the attack, although Prime Minister Charles Michel rejected their resignations, according a report in the Le Soir daily.

On Belgian television, Geens suggested that communication from Turkey could have been “more diligent,” according to an Associated Press report. But he also conceded that Belgium should have been more alert to the likelihood that Bakrouai was a terrorist, given the location of his arrest in Turkey.

‘Borderless’ union

Toner said the U.S. has no reason to doubt Erdogan’s claims about the deported suspect, and declined to comment on the Belgian government’s response that it did not have sufficient information that the person concerned had terrorist ties.

“It does speak to the ongoing challenge of tracking these individuals, and that has been something that we have been working with Belgium, with France, and with other countries in Europe, at how you track these individuals, border control, watch lists, whatever you want to call them,” he said.

“But as these people move from country to country, and indeed in Europe, it’s a challenge because it’s a quote/unquote ‘borderless’ union. It’s something that we are actually working and have been working with Belgium for some time, and especially in light of the attacks in Paris in February [sic], we have stepped up those efforts.”

Asked whether Europe was being lax in its cooperation with the U.S. or within the union, Toner declined to “give Europe a grade.”

“There’s always a degree of Monday morning quarterbacking, to use an American expression, after an event like this, and that’s natural,” he said. “Where our focus is and has been, frankly, for some months now is working with these governments – not just Belgium but including Belgium – to really tighten the gaps, improve capacity, build capabilities to increase that kind of border security.”

One day before the Brussels attack, the House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed legislation that will require the State Department to submit to Congress an annual scorecard assessing how well countries around the world are securing their borders against travel by terrorists and foreign fighters.

The evaluation would then allow the U.S. to streamline its assistance to partners needing help to improve, and also to suspend foreign assistance to governments not meeting minimum standards.

Belgian soldiers patrol outside a court building where Salah Abdeslam, the top suspect in last November;s deadly Paris attacks, was expected to appear before a judge in Brussels on Thursday, March 24, 2016. (AP Photo/Peter Dejong)

Prosecutors say at least four terrorists were involved in Tuesday’s attack, for which the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS/ISIL) has claimed responsibility.

Ibrahim el-Bakraoui and Najim Laachraoui – a suspected bomb maker for last November’s attack in Paris, also claimed by ISIS – were named as the two terrorists who blew themselves up at the airport. A third man seen in surveillance video footage with the pair is the subject of a manhunt.

Bakraoui’s brother, Khalid el-Bakraoui, is believed to have detonated his bomb on the train. Prosecutors have not confirmed Belgian and French media reports suggesting that a fifth suspect – a man seen with the subway bomber in video footage – may be at large.

European Union justice and interior ministers held an emergency meeting in Brussels on Thursday.

Just one day before the attack, the deputy director of the E.U. policing agency Europol signed a liaison agreement with a senior Turkish national police official, aimed at enhancing cooperation between the agency and Ankara in the fight against terrorism and organized crime.

In another related recent development, E.U. economic and finance ministers agreed at a meeting in Brussels last month that member states would start sharing terrorism lists, in a bid to curtail terror financing.

The State Department on Tuesday issued a travel alert for all of Europe, warning that “terrorist groups continue to plan near-term attacks throughout Europe” and urging U.S. citizens to “exercise vigilance when in public places or using mass transportation.”

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