Paris Attacks 'Organized' in Belgium, Unlikely Hotbed of Terror

As Belgium grapples with radicals, expert says government was “in denial.”

ByABC News
November 16, 2015, 3:18 PM

— -- As heavily-armed police today raced around Brussels chasing leads related to the horrific terrorist attacks in Paris, terrorism experts and analysts told ABC News the chaos in the normally-buttoned downed capital was proof that Belgium can no longer afford to be slow-footed in the small nation’s fight against the outsized presence of radical Islam.

“There has been a serious jihadi issue there for many, many years,” said Daniel Benjamin, who oversaw State Department counter-terror efforts during President Obama’s first term. “A number of European countries have underestimated the threat and have been in denial about the dangers they faced… The Belgians especially were in denial.”

Today French President Francois Hollande said that the suicide terror attacks that claimed more than 120 lives in Paris had been “organized” in Belgium, and over the weekend two men were arrested in the Molenbeek district of Brussels and charged with terrorism-related offenses. Officials said Brussels is also home to at least two of the suicide bombers. One of them, as well as a man more recently identified as the suspected “mastermind” of the attack, was from Molenbeek.

The purported mastermind, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, was previously linked to smaller terror plots in Europe, including foiled European train and church attacks earlier this year. After a gun-battle with police in another Belgian suburb that reportedly killed two suspected extremists in January, he told an ISIS magazine he was able to escape into Syria. He’s believed to still be there, where one French official said he’s considered a “high-profile terrorism figure.”

In the days leading up to Friday’s violence, the Belgian cell purportedly procured the rental cars used in the attack and may have supplied the weapons and explosive vests. At least one of those involved escaped back over the France-Belgium border after the attack and is now the subject of a massive manhunt, European officials said. He was thought to have been surrounded by police in Molenbeek, but the police raid revealed he wasn’t there after all.

"We're talking about a network," the Molenbeek’s mayor, Francoise Schepmans, said in a Reuters report Sunday, referring to individuals arrested there.

Before the Paris massacre last week, the Belgian capital and often the specific district of Molenbeek repeatedly have found themselves playing a supporting role in past plots. After 12 people were killed by three gunmen in the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris in January, authorities raided locations in Molenbeek and other Belgian cities in during an investigation purportedly unrelated to the shootings that nevertheless “concerning several people who [Belgian authorities thought] are an operational cell” made of people who had been in Syria. Other reports said one of the Charlie Hebdo gunmen got his weapons in Molenbeek.

The young man who attempted to open fire on a French train earlier this year reportedly stayed for a time in Molenbeek before the attack. And greater Brussels was the site of an attack on a Jewish museum in May 2014 that claimed four lives.

Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel expressed deep concerns this weekend about the scope of the problem facing his country.

“Almost every time, there is a link to Molenbeek,” Michel said. “We have to clean up that terrorism in Molenbeek . That’s the main issue here.”

Residents and politicians of the small district are becoming exasperated with its reputation, according to Germany’s Der Spiegel.

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