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Brussels Bombing Suspect Was a Moroccan Citizen

After the second explosion, the man went back upstairs, approached a soldier and shouted “God is great” in Arabic. The soldier opened fire, killing him. Initial reports that the man might have been wearing an explosive belt proved to be unfounded.

While the attack was successfully averted — and Belgian authorities praised the soldier for his quick response — it once again shined a spotlight on Belgium, a linguistically divided and politically fragmented country that has been used as a base by many jihadists. Some developed extremist views in Belgium; others traveled to Syria or Iraq and joined the Islamic State.

Militants based in Brussels have been linked to deadly attacks in and around Paris in November 2015, and to bombings at Brussels Airport and a subway station in March 2016. More than 160 people died in those sets of attacks, for which the Islamic State claimed responsibility.

A number of militants involved in those earlier attacks had roots in Morocco, including Abdelhamid Abaaoud, a ringleader of the Paris attacks who grew up in Belgium; two brothers, Salah and Ibrahim Abdeslam, who were among the Paris attackers; Mohamed Abrini, who accompanied two suicide bombers in the Brussels Airport attack; Najim Laachraoui, a bomb maker who blew himself up at Brussels Airport; and another pair of brothers, Ibrahim and Khalid el-Bakraoui, who died in the Brussels bombings. (Salah Abdeslam and Mr. Abrini are being held while awaiting trial.)

Belgium, home to the headquarters of the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, has been on alert for more than 18 months.

About 100,000 people with Moroccan citizenship live in Belgium, which has a population of 1.1 million. Moroccan-Belgians are the country’s largest minority group with roots outside the European Union.

Many Moroccan men were recruited in the 1960s to work in Belgium’s mines and factories on temporary contracts but stayed on, eventually joined by their families. Many then became Belgian citizens, and it is often their children or grandchildren — albeit only a tiny fraction of the population — who have been drawn to jihadist ideology.

Often, according to experts who have studied the phenomenon, future militants start with petty crime and then search for an identity to frame their illicit activity, or to atone for past misdeeds.

Prosecutors said the suspect — whom they identified only as Oussama Z. — came from Molenbeek, a working-class immigrant neighborhood that has been connected to the Paris and Brussels attackers. He was known to police for sexual misconduct but not for terrorism.

The area has become synonymous with the perceived failure of Belgian authorities to tame Islamic militancy.

In early 2016, Donald J. Trump, then seeking the Republican presidential nomination, called Brussels a “hellhole” and argued that Belgium had been blighted by the failure of Muslims to integrate.

The failed attack on Tuesday occurred on the eve of a summit meeting in Brussels at which European leaders, including Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany and President Emmanuel Macron of France, were to discuss military and security issues, among other topics.

Jan Jambon, the Belgian interior minister, said in an interview with VRT News on Wednesday that several homes had been raided overnight, and prosecutors said the suspect’s home in Molenbeek was among them.

It was not clear whether the assailant had links to the Islamic State or to other militant groups, but Mr. Jambon said that investigators would be examining how the man had been radicalized and that the authorities would continue looking to plug any gaps in Belgium’s security system.

“The modus operandi of I.S. keeps changing,” he said, referring to the Islamic State. “It’s a game of the poacher and the forest ranger — whenever the forest ranger approaches, the poacher goes elsewhere and finds new ways.”

While he added that it was essential to be vigilant in the face of security threats, he warned against an overreaction. “If you protect yourself everywhere against anything, in the end we will end up in a police state,” he said.

After a national security council meeting, Prime Minister Charles Michel said that although there was no indication that another attack was imminent, security would nonetheless be intensified.

“We will not let ourselves be intimidated by terrorists,” he said. “Just recently we saw with the attacks in Great Britain that our absolute basic values, our freedom and democracy, are threatened. We need to remain vigilant for that, we need to continue our lives as normally as possible.”

Brussels Central Station was temporarily closed, but it reopened Wednesday morning, at which point trains and subways were running on time.

The nearby Grand Place, an imposing square and tourist destination, was partly evacuated after the attack but it, too, has fully reopened.

Source: NYT > World

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