Europe News

Paris attacks: Belgium cries foul over French blame game

Peter Spiegel

The Belgian government issued a private diplomatic protest to France this week over what it perceives as the French leadership's unfair blaming of Belgium for Friday's terrorist attacks in Paris, saying that homegrown jihadism is as much a problem for France as it is for Belgium.

The protest, made by Prime Minister Charles Michel's chief diplomatic adviser to the French ambassador to Belgium on Tuesday, comes after international scrutiny has focused on the Brussels neighbourhood of Molenbeek, home to at least three of the attackers and the militant believed to be the plot's architect.

Belgian officials said only one of the three teams that carried out the Paris attack was linked to Molenbeek, and that France was attempting to point the finger at Belgian failings to cover up its own domestic lapses in countering Islamic extremism.

"We were quite firm in our message," said one senior Belgian official briefed on the démarche. "We do not ignore that jihadism and radicalism has a source here in Belgium. But France has to deal with its own problem as well."

According to both French and Belgian officials, Belgium's security services have been effective in assisting in the rapidly expanding investigation into the attack's plotters, including tracking two men who may still be at large: Salah Abdeslam, a French national who resided in Molenbeek and is the subject of an international manhunt, and Abdelhamid Abaaoud, a Belgian former Molenbeek resident believed to be the architect of the plot.

Both men were thought to have been holed up in a safe house in the Paris suburb of Saint Denis, targeted in Wednesday morning's French police raid . The Paris prosecutor said it was not yet known if Mr Abaaoud was one of the two killed in the raid. "There was a very strong presumption that both people were there," said a Belgian official briefed on the operation's intelligence.

The official said Belgian security services had provided first-hand information from phone taps that confirmed the safe house in Paris was being used by the attack's plotters, shoring up French police's case to storm the building.

Police investigators arrive outside the Bataclan concert hall the morning after a series of deadly attacks in Paris, November 14, 2015.
'Let's go' text found on Paris attacker's cellphone

But Mr Michel was said to be embittered that French investigators, instead of praising their Belgian counterparts for their assistance, were pointing their fingers at Belgium as the centre of the plot. One official said Brussels was particularly irked at the claim by Bernard Cazeneuve, French interior minister, that the attacks had been organised in Belgium.

According to Belgian officials, French diplomats had informed the Belgian government that François Hollande, the French president, would single out Belgium for praise in a high-profile speech to French legislators on Monday. Instead, Belgian co-operation was not mentioned and French officials continued to point to Molenbeek as an incubator for the attack, Belgian officials believe.

One official noted that a January Islamist plot uncovered in Molenbeek and the Belgian city of Verviers to attack Belgian police had involved radicalised French nationals — but Belgian authorities had not blamed Paris for a failure to control its homegrown extremists. "We did not put the blame on France," the official said.

Belgian officials are frustrated that France has not shown similar restraint following its own terrorist attacks.

On Thursday Mr Michel is due to announce a new round of measures to strengthen Belgian security services and antiterrorism laws, a process Belgian officials say began in earnest following the Verviers plot in January, when Mr Michel introduced measures — including the ability to strip citizenship from Belgian-born jihadis — that Mr Hollande is now proposing for France.