While France sat on actionable intelligence on terrorist activities, Belgium was used by terrorist groups as breeding ground for young recruits. This laxity is what led to the 13 November massacre carried out by the Islamic State in Paris which led to the death of 129 people.
Investigations into the terror strikes have revealed that some of the perpetrators of the attack, including the mastermind, Abdel-Hamid Abu Oud, were already on the radar of security agencies for their terror links. Some of them had even been arrested or detained for questioning. But, in the end, they were all let off, allowing them to first fight in Syria and then return to Paris with their murderous rage.
After the attacks, European agencies have also woken up to a fact they had known for ages: that there is a jihadi haven bang in the middle of Brussels.
The terrorists who participated in the attacks on Paris, including Abu Oud (Abaaoud), are being traced back to Molenbeek, a densely-populated area of Brussels notorious for breeding locally-bred terrorists and harboring jihadis from across the world.
According to the news reports, Molenbeek has a history of connections with cases of extremism. Almost all of Belgium's terrorism-related incidents. It was searched as part of anti-terror operations that were carried out in Belgium in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks.
A suspect in a thwarted attack on a high-speed train from Belgium to France was reported to have stayed at his sister's house in Molenbeek, and a Frenchman accused of shooting dead four people last year at the Jewish Museum in Brussels also spent time in the area, according to Reuters news agency.
Abu Oud a Belgian of Moroccan origin was raised in Molenbeek before he left for Syria to fight alongside IS against the Assad regime. Two other principal suspects, Ibrahim Abdeslam, who blew himself up at the Comptoir Voltaire cafe after spraying bullets at people inside, and his brother Salah Abdeslam, who is on the run, were also from middle-class families in Molenbeek.
Incidentally, the participation of the Abdeslam brothers busts the myth that jihadis are inspired by religious ideology and motives they consider sacred to god. Salah Abdeslam owned a bar in Molenbeek and had been arrested in the past on charges of drug trafficking. By all accounts, the two brothers were petty criminals who graduated from peddling drugs to killing people.
In a classic case of post-facto wisdom, investigators are now realising they should have kept Molenbeek on their radar. BBC quoted the Belgian interior Minister Jan Jambon admitting that a high proportion of those who have left Belgium to join Islamist groups came from the area, and recently vowing to "clean it up". But, there is growing repentance that for long Molenbeek was treated like a no-go area, where the problems were considered so serious that even the cops did not bother tackling them.
What does the Paris experience tells us? It shows that if security agencies, investigators and cops do not let their guard down, tracking down jihadist elements, terror sympathisers and radicalised youth is possible. If the agencies keep their antennae up and act on the available intelligence, terror strikes can be pre-empted. But, often they let the suspects go, instead of dealing with them with requisite urgency and force.
It is well established that Abu Oud had been identified as a potential security threat and French authorities warned of his intentions. Yet, they allowed him to slip under the radar for almost a year when he left for Syria and then enter Paris unnoticed. He is suspected to be among one of the terrorists killed in the Tuesday morning gun battle with French security forces near Saint Denis, a Paris suburb just a few metres from the football stadium where terrorists had blown themselves up on Friday.
Similarly, the inability of Australian security agencies to act on intelligence had led to the lone-wolf attack on Lindt Restaurant in Sydney in December 2014.
The Sydney Morning Herald had reported that a national security hotline received 18 warnings about gunman Man Haron Monis in the days before the deadly Sydney siege. The Australian Security Intelligence Organisation and the NSW Police decided he was not a threat.
Like the Abdeslam brothers, Monis also had a criminal past. He was accused of being an accomplice in his wife’s murder, was charged with 40 other offences and was convicted of writing offensive letters to families of Australians who lost their lives in Afghanistan.
Clearly, if they have to pre-empt strikes, investigators will have to reconsider the philosophy of ignoring the intelligence and letting suspects slip away.
Updated Date: Nov 19, 2015 12:33 PM