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Doubts arise about intelligence efforts in Paris attacks

Radicals hatched plot under noses of Belgian police

BRUSSELS — Just eight days before Ibrahim Abdeslam blew himself up in Paris as part of an elaborate terrorist operation Friday, authorities in the heavily immigrant Brussels district of Molenbeek had the future terrorist in their sights.

Unfortunately, they had identified him not as a potential killer but as the proprietor of a bar that hosted drug dealers and drunks. Under an order signed by Molenbeek’s mayor, the bar was shut down Nov. 5 “for compromising public security and tranquility.”

Molenbeek is known as a haven for extremists, home to dozens of young men accused of leaving to wage jihad in Syria and, in some cases, plotting attacks in Europe. The area has now been linked to at least four terrorist attacks in two years.

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But the inability to stop Abdeslam was just one example of the opportunities missed by Belgian and French authorities and intelligence services, a list that includes letting Abdeslam’s brother Salah, 26, another suspect, slip through their fingers.

Salah Abdeslam rented a car in Brussels that was apparently used to transport some of the gunmen who killed 89 people in a Paris concert hall. He had a criminal record, which outlines his suspected involvement in organized crime, but there was no arrest warrant linked to his file. Because of that record, his name popped up during a routine traffic stop by French police on Saturday. But he was allowed to drive on because he had not yet been linked to the attacks. He remains at large.

The near misses raise troubling questions about the Belgian and French intelligence services, not to mention concerns about Europe’s system of open borders.

“Every time there is an attack, we discover that the perpetrators were known to the authorities,” said François Heisbourg, a counterterrorism expert. “What this shows is that our intelligence is actually pretty good, but our ability to act on it is limited by the sheer numbers.”

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But the missed opportunities, intelligence officials and experts say, pale when compared with the fact the attackers were able, at least in part, to organize their plot under the noses of the authorities in Molenbeek.

Ibrahim Abdeslam, the suicide bomber in Paris, and Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the suspected mastermind of the attacks, had each lived barely 200 yards from Molenbeek’s main police station and had had brushes with the law.

The Paris attacks indicate that few real steps have been taken to keep the neighborhood under surveillance and break up its small but lethal extremist underground.

Investigators believe that the Paris massacres involved at least three people from Molenbeek, including the Abdeslams and Abaaoud, a foreign fighter in Syria for the Islamic State who investigators believe orchestrated the carnage.

Abaaoud has appeared regularly in gruesome Islamic State recruiting videos. But by his own account, he, too, managed to slip in and out of Belgium without being arrested, despite being stopped by an officer who “let me go, as he did not see the resemblance” to photos of himself in the Belgian news media.

Abaaoud boasted in an interview this year with the militant group’s magazine, Dabiq, of outsmarting the security services. “We spent months trying to find a way into Europe, and by Allah’s strength, we succeeded in finally making our way to Belgium,” he said.

He added that “we were then able to obtain weapons and set up a safe house while we planned to carry out operations against the crusaders.”

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One of their biggest allies, however, may have been an ill-equipped Belgian security system. In Molenbeek, a mostly white police force has tenuous links to a largely immigrant population resentful of being labeled as potential terrorists.

The police have on occasion pounced, but mostly for petty crimes unrelated to extremism.

Mohamed Abdeslam, brother of one of the Paris suicide bombers, was picked up Saturday by the police and released Monday. An employee of the municipal government, he told reporters in Molenbeek that he learned of his brother’s extremist affiliations from news media reports of the Paris attacks. He said he previously knew “absolutely nothing.”

The father of Abaaoud, the Islamic State fighter from Molenbeek suspected of orchestrating the Paris attacks, was so appalled by his son’s embrace of violent jihadism that he filed a civil suit against him in Belgium in May, asserting the son had kidnapped a sibling, just 13, and lured him to Syria.

The terrorists not only hid their radical views, but they also benefited from Belgium’s large pool of angry Muslim youths and its longstanding role as a center for illegal arms. The tiny country has seen more than 400 of its citizens leave to fight in Syria, the highest per capita number in Europe.

“Long before jihadism was on the scene, Belgium was a hub for illegal gun-running,” Heisbourg said.