Brussels attacks: Security officials accused of missing a string of opportunities to stop suicide bombers

Accomplices still on the run after day of conflicting reports and confusion

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The Independent Online

Two brothers, one a wanted terrorist and both with long histories of violent crime, have been identified as the Brussels suicide bombers as security officials were accused of missing a string of opportunities to stop the attackers before they carried out their deadly plan.

Brahim el-Bakraoui, 29, and his brother Khalid, 27, were named as two of the four-strong bombing team who struck the airport and a metro station. Prosecutors warned that several accomplices were still free in a city which remained on its highest state of alert.

Officials apparently failed to register that Brahim el-Bakraoui, who was the subject of an Interpol “red notice” alert, had re-entered the country after being deported from Turkey as a suspected jihadist last year.

The Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, claimed that the bomber was detained near the Syrian border in June last year and deported to the Netherlands at his own request. Both Belgian and Dutch authorities were formally notified on 14 July of his deportation and the suspicion that he was a foreign fighter, he said, but Belgium failed to uncover any links to terrorism.

It emerged that police had found the last testament of Brahim on a computer in which he detailed his increasingly desperate attempts to avoid capture and a long jail sentence. “I don’t know what to do. I’m in a hurry. I’m on the run. People are looking for me everywhere. And if I give myself up then I’ll end up in a cell,” according to the text revealed by prosecutors. 

The bombers: Khalid, left, and Brahim el-Bakraoui (Interpol/Getty)

Only a misunderstanding with the taxi company over the size of the car ordered to  take the attackers to the airport thwarted an even more destructive attack.

The terrorists were forced to leave one bomb behind when the firm sent a smaller car than expected to pick them up from the Schaerbeek district of the city. The unexploded bomb was discovered on Tuesday night when police raided the house where the plotters had prepared their attack. It was the same type as that used in the Paris attacks and was found along with an Isis flag.

Brussels attack suspects named as manhunt intensifies

While European leaders publicly united behind Belgium as it started a three-day period of mourning, there remained a recognition that the pan-European strategy to protect against terrorist attacks had failed to deliver all it should have.

The French Prime Minister, Manuel Valls, who laid a wreath at the underground station close to the European Commission headquarters where more than 20 people died, said that EU nations had to invest “massively” in their security systems.

The most direct criticism came from Turkey, which has previously criticised France for what it said was a failure to heed a prior warning about one of the suicide attackers involved in last year’s attack in Paris in which 130 people were killed.

Turkish officials have previously said that French authorities were warned twice by Turkey about one of the assailants in the attacks on Paris in November. A senior government source told The Independent: “We had warned France before the Paris attacks, now this. It’s ridiculous.”

The two brothers had been known to police in Belgium for years, and operated in some of the marginalised communities in the capital that had avoided close attention from the intelligence agencies despite problems of jihadist recruitment and terrorist links. 

The Belgian federal prosecutor, Frederic van Leeuw, told reporters that the two brothers, Brussels-born Belgian citizens, had “extensive” criminal records but they were not related to terrorism.

What do we know about the Brussels attackers?

However Khalid is believed to have been the subject of an Interpol “red notice” since August last year, alerting police forces around the world to the fact that he was a wanted terrorist. The 27-year-old is thought to have rented a house under a false name in the Brussels suburb of Forest which was raided by police last week. 

Brahim had been handed a nine-year jail sentence in 2010 after using a Kalashnikov assault rifle during a gunfight with police, and also took part in a bungled robbery at a Western Union office. Khalid is a convicted car-jacker, receiving a five-year sentence 2011.

Investigators are yet to identify the man dressed in a cream-coloured coat

Brahim was one of two suicide bombers killed at the airport along with 12 other people. Le Monde reported that the second airport bomber was Najim Laachraoui, who has been linked to the Paris massacre. French media said his DNA had been found on explosive belts found at the Bataclan theatre and the Stade de France following the killings in the capital five months ago.

Brussels police were continuing their search for a third man in a cream-coloured coat caught on security cameras who escaped from the airport after placing a bomb that failed to detonate. Investigators originally identified this man as Laachraoui before backtracking, suggesting that was actually the bearded man walking on the left of the footage and the right of the group, wearing a black sweater and beige trousers. To add to the confusion, local media suggested that Laachraoui had been detained at a pizza restaurant, before withdrawing the claim.

Investigators said they did not know who the man dressed in white at the airport was.

Khalid died when his explosives detonated at Maelbeek metro station about an hour after the double blast at the airport. 

The attack appears to have been triggered by last week’s arrest in Brussels of Salah Abdeslam, the only surviving suspect in the Paris massacre. He has told investigators he was planning to “restart something” in Brussels, according to officials. Isis has claimed responsibility for the Brussels bombings. 

Belgium held a nationwide minute of silence on Wednesday with King Philippe, Prime Minister Charles Michel and Mr Valls laying wreaths at the Maelbeek underground station. In the afternoon, thousands of people gathered at  the Place de la Bourse in the centre of Brussels – including dozens of students chanting “stop the war” – in solidarity with those killed. 

“In Belgium, it’s not every day that we show solidarity politically,” said Fanny Nicaise, 24. “It’s important that you aren’t alone in your sadness.” 

Unlike during the lockdown imposed in a terrorist alert last year, schools and universities remained open, and most metro lines were still operating – although one-third of pupils were reported to have been absent from school. 

A friendly football match between Belgium and Portugal, due to take place at the King Baudouin Stadium in Brussels next Tuesday, will now take place in the Portuguese town of Leiria. 

On Wednesday the death toll was also downgraded from 34 to 31 while the number of injured was revised upwards from 198 to 300.