BRUSSELS, April 2, (AP): When Ibrahim El Bakraoui blew himself up in the Brussels Airport check-in area, killing and maiming scores of travelers, it was at least the third time he had passed unimpeded through an airport terminal in recent months. Suspected by Turkey of being a “foreign terrorist fighter” and known at home in Belgium as an ex-con wanted for parole violations, Bakraoui was still allowed to board a commercial airliner unaccompanied last summer, flying freely from Istanbul to the Netherlands and disappearing without a trace.
The ease with which he did so raises questions about how much governments know about the movements of returnees among the 5,000 home-grown jihadis who have trained and fought in places like Syria or Iraq. Many now pose a “serious threat,” according to the police agency Europol. Some, like Bakraoui, have already used their deadly skills in cities like Brussels or Paris.
Testimony from government ministers, extracts of documents and conversations with police, border and aviation officials reveal a series of security gaps, misunderstandings and procedural red-tape that surrounded the deportation last July of this future suicide bomber. Even those who take some responsibility for missing the threat Bakraoui posed find it hard to understand why his capture raised no alarms.
This was a man picked up by Turkish authorities in Gaziantep near Syria, who had done jail time in Belgium for armed robbery, including shooting at police with a Kalashnikov. “We are talking about someone with a 10-year conviction, who spent a few years in prison, then traveled via Turkey to the Syrian border,” Belgian Interior Minister Jan Jambon said on March 25, as lawmakers probed for security shortfalls three days after the Brussels attacks left 32 people dead. “You don’t have to have worked long on terrorism to conclude from all this that there is a very high probability — 90 percent, 99 percent, take your pick — that we are dealing with a foreign fighter,” he said.
Bakraoui may be just one case among many. Turkey has deported around 3,250 suspected “foreign terrorist fighters” since 2011 — a number that does not include those turned back before making it to Syria, according to its foreign ministry. Turkey’s government says Belgium made no extradition request for Bakraoui when it learned on June 26 that he was in Turkey, leaving him free to travel anywhere in Europe.
“It was obvious that he was affiliated and involved in the conflict zones, and he was wounded. That is the reason why he was deported. And this is the information that was communicated to Belgium,” President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told CNN in an interview aired Thursday. Bakraoui is not the only case to fall through the communications gap.
In September 2014, just over a year before Bakraoui’s trip to Amsterdam, three French jihadis who said they were defecting from the Islamic State group were able to buy tickets to Marseille, fl y together unescorted and walk out of customs as free men, one of their lawyers, Pierre Dunac, said. According to France’s interior ministry, they were detained in Turkey for visa violations — although they were wanted men back home. Before setting out for Syria, two of them were associated with Mohamed Merah, the Islamic extremist who killed seven people in the south of France in 2012.
Amid a government uproar, the three turned themselves in to French police and have been behind bars ever since, facing terrorism charges. As for Bakraoui, what he did while in Turkey and what he would go on to do in Brussels would remain a mystery to Belgian authorities for quite some time. He disappeared off their radar last May and only popped back up on June 26, when Turkey notifi ed Belgium that he had been picked up two weeks earlier near the Syrian border.