Why Belgium is vulnerable to attacks

The World
Why was Belgium so slow to catch a suspected terrorist?

Flags are at half staff at European Commission headquarters in Brussels after this week's bombing. 

Vincent Kessler/Reuters

Hiding in plain sight.

On the run for months, it took Belgian investigators more than four months to track down a suspected bomber in the deadly terror attacks on Paris in November.

Where did they find Salam Abdeslam? In the Molenbeek district of Brussels, right under their noses.

"It's hard not to describe Keystone Cops sort of bungling," says Ryan Heath, based in Brussels for Politico.

Belgium has not put enough resources into counterterrorism effort, he says. For example, in Molenbeek, where many homes are suspected of harboring ISIS terrorists, police are only searching one house per day." 

It's probably too logistically difficult to say you're going to search every single home," he says. "But there's some kind of middle ground between searching one out of 250 homes and every single home and  what I think is that the Belgians haven't come up  with a short- and medium-term sort of strategy to make it legally possible to conduct those oprations."

In Belgium it has been illegal for investigators to make raids after 9 p.m. and before 5 a.m. or to get a warrant to search a home after 4 p.m. on Friday afternoon. He says those laws prevented police from entering the Brussels' home where Salam Abdeslam, the suspected Paris bomber, was hiding.

"Terror doesn't sleep and sometimes bad things happen on weekends and at night time," he says. "And that's why you see frustration from all levels of Belgium's partners."

Heath says Belgium needs to coordinate its operations with its European allies and to loosen its security laws to enable investigators to do their jobs, because there appears to be a growing network of ISIS operatives in Belgium.

"It's not a case that this is just a few stray individuals that are organizing these acts," says Heath. "It's a network of at least several dozen people, potentially it's hundreds of people."

Correction: An earlier version of this story said Abdeslam was found at his mother's home. He was captured on the streets of Molenbeek, and authorities detained a family suspected of sheltering him.