BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Belgium’s interior and justice ministers offered to resign on Thursday over a failure to track an Islamic State militant expelled by Turkey as a suspected fighter and who blew himself up at Brussels airport this week.
Brahim El Bakraoui was one of three identified suspected suicide bombers who hit the airport and a metro train, killing at least 31 people and wounding some 270 on Tuesday in the worst attack in Belgian history. At least one other man seen with them on airport security cameras is on the run and a fifth suspected bomber filmed in the metro attack may be dead or alive.
Interior Minister Jan Jambon and Justice Minister Koen Geens tendered their resignations to Prime Minister Charles Michel, who asked them to stay on. “In time of war, you cannot leave the field,” Jambon, a right-wing Flemish nationalist, said.
The security lapses in a country that is home to the European Union and NATO have drawn international criticism of an apparent reluctance to tackle Islamist radicals effectively. It also raised questions about information sharing between Western intelligence services.
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said Bakraoui, 29, had been expelled last July after being arrested near the Syrian border and two officials said he had been deported a second time. Belgian and Dutch authorities had been notified of Turkish suspicions that he was a foreign fighter trying to reach Syria.
At the time, Belgian authorities replied that Bakraoui, who had skipped parole after serving less than half of a 9-year sentence for armed robbery, was a criminal but not a militant.
“You can ask how it came about that someone was let out so early and that we missed the chance to seize him when he was in Turkey. I understand the questions,” Jambon said. “In the circumstances, it was right to take political responsibility and I offered my resignation to the prime minister.”
Geens said systems should be reviewed but said that other countries had been attacked and cited in particular Sept. 11, 2001 in the United States, noting that “there were 3,000 dead”.
“We must be very critical of ourselves,” he said. “On the other hand ... we must note that such events have occurred in the countries with the highest security, with the best intelligence services in the world.”
Investigators are convinced the same jihadist network was involved in the November Paris attacks on cafes, a sports stadium and a concert hall that killed 130 people.
Public broadcaster VRT said investigators believed Paris attacks suspect Salah Abdeslam, arrested last Friday, probably planned a similar shooting and suicide bomb attack in Brussels.
“The terrorists were planning the same scenario as in Paris, only it partially failed,” VRT said.
One man was killed in a shootout with police on March 15 that led to the discovery of assault weapons and explosives and the arrest of Abdeslam, 26, and another suspect on March 18.
Belgium lowered its security alert level one notch down from four, the highest level, to three; but officials did not say what that would mean in terms of security measures that have seen a heavy police and military presence in Brussels.
Islamic State posted a video on social media calling the Brussels blasts a victory and featuring the training of Belgian militants suspected in the Paris attacks.
The lawyer of the chief surviving suspect linking the Paris and Brussels attacks, French national Abdeslam, said he wanted to “explain himself” and would no longer resist extradition to France. Salah, said lawyer Sven Mary, had not been aware of the plan for the Brussels airport and metro attack that was carried out by men who had shared hideouts with him.
After calls from U.S. Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump for the possible use of torture in such cases, Belgian officials have faced questions over their failure to extract prior intelligence from Abdeslam.
Two sources familiar with the matter said the Bakraoui brothers had been on U.S. government counter-terrorism watch lists before the attacks. But it was not clear precisely how long they had been known to the authorities.
Bakraoui’s brother Khalid, 26, a fellow convict, killed about 20 people at Maelbeek metro station in the city centre. De Morgen newspaper said he had violated the terms of his parole last May by maintaining contacts with past criminal associates, but a Belgian magistrate had released him.
Security sources told Belgian media the other suicide bomber at the airport was Najim Laachraoui, a veteran Belgian Islamist fighter in Syria suspected of making explosive belts for November’s Paris attacks.
Laachraoui’s younger brother Mourad issued a statement condemning his actions in the first public reaction from a family member of one of the Brussels attackers.
The third suspect captured on airport security cameras pushing a baggage trolley into the departures hall is now the target of a police manhunt. He has not been named.
The bespectacled man wearing a cream jacket and a black hat ran out of the terminal, federal prosecutors said, and a third suitcase bomb, the biggest of the three, exploded later as bomb disposal experts were clearing the area, causing no casualties.
The U.S. State Department said it was trying to account for U.S. citizens in Brussels, including two who were U.S. government employees or their family members. Identifying victims and even some of the 316 wounded has proved difficult.
U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter said the bloodshed in the Belgian capital showed European allies should do more to fight Islamic State alongside American efforts in the Middle East.
The attacks highlighted Belgium’s problem with some 300 locals who have fought in Syria, the biggest contingent from Europe in relation to its national population of 11 million.
At the time of the Paris attacks, its security service had fewer than 600 staff. The government has since raised spending on police and intelligence.
Additional reporting by Philip Blenkinsop, Julia Fioretti, Barbara Lewis, Bate Felix, Jan Strupczewski, Robin Emmott and Jean-Baptiste Vey in Brussels; Writing by Paul Taylor; Editing by Ralph Boulton