Sunday

23rd Feb 2020

Belgium 'insulted' by bad press on terrorism

  • Thirty two people died and hundreds were injured following attacks on 22 March in Brussels (Photo: Eric Maurice)

Two Belgian ministers criticised international media for bad press of government mistakes in the lead up to the terrorist attacks in Brussels and then insisted on reinstalling illegal data retention rules throughout Europe.

"I'm afraid that our society will have to pay a higher price for its security than is the case now," Belgium's interior minister Jan Jambon told euro-deputies on Monday (25 April).

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Jambon was speaking alongside Belgium's minister of justice Koen Geens at the European parliament's civil liberties committee.

Both men praised their intelligence and security services despite glaring gaps that almost led to their resignations in the immediate aftermath of the Brussels bombings on 22 March that killed 32 and injured hundreds.

They noted that after France, Belgium shares the most data with the EU's police agency Europol.

They say legislation has now been passed that will allow authorities to conduct house searches at night. They are also banning the anonymity of pre-paid SIM cards and have earmarked €400 million in 2016 to tackle home grown terrorism prevention.

They pointed out how their intelligence services dismantled a terrorist cell in Verviers in January last year and that Belgium had convincted 115 people of terrorism offences in 2015, up from seven or eight a year before 2014.

But more than a year after the success in Verviers, the same authorities missed or ignored clues that may have averted the Brussels attacks.

Zaventem airport suicide bomber Ibrahim el-Bakraoui had been arrested and kicked out of Turkey last July and then slipped by Belgian authorities despite having been put on a terrorist watch list and despite having broken his parole.

A police chief in Mechelen, a city near Brussels, had also held onto information for three months that could have led investigators to suspected terrorist Salah Abdeslam because his colleague "forgot to pass on the information of the dossier".

On the day of the attacks, the alert to stop metro lines in Brussels was issued almost an hour after the airport bombing.

Geens said the bad press on Belgium's weak spots to the growing threat of terrorism "not only damaged the country" but "is also an insult".

"Few countries have been attacked so violently by the international press," he said.

He then spoke at length about the need to sweep up people's digital trails in a larger effort to gather evidence and prevent further attacks.

Belgium wants new EU legislation on data retention, which the European Court of Justice declared illegal in 2014 for its broad scope and fundamental rights violations.

Geens said Belgium had tried to convince the EU commission and the council, representing member states, to come up with new retention rules after the ECJ ruling but without avail.

"For Christ's sake, let's not exaggerate with regard to privacy when our security is involved, it is just too complicated," he said.

Belgium is instead passing its own rules for data retention, despite broad EU-level resistance, and the Luxembourg court's judgment.

It plans to extend a new EU law on gathering personal data of people flying into and out of Europe to also cover rail, bus, and ferry travel.

"All modes of transport, so not only aviation, but also international trains and even also ships, busing systems," said Jambon.

They plan to add new police officers in Molenbeek, the Brussels neighbourhood where some of the attackers lived.

Jambon said 16 would be dispatched to the troubled neighbourhood, out of the 300 new posts that will be created for whole of Brussels.

Belgium has designated 611 of its nationals as foreign fighters or people who have gone to Syria and returned or planned on doing so.

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