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Abdeslam's failed arrest in 2015. Belgians dispute any mistake

(B2) In its long investigation report, published recently, the Belgian commission of the Chamber of Deputies refutes any accusation of fault or errors in Abdeslam's flight to Belgium (1). They do, however, provide several details that explain how the failed arrest of Abdeslam, the very day after the November 13 attacks in Paris, was a succession of "small" errors, committed at all levels of the scale, which resulted in a larger error.

It is November 14, 2015, the day after the attacks in Paris at Bataclan, Saint-Denis and on the terraces. The trauma is important in France but also everywhere in Europe. Controls have been reinforced in all corners of the territory, particularly in the north-eastern section of Paris up to the Belgian border.

He's 9 p.m.. Salah Abdeslam is checked by the French gendarmerie at the Hourdin toll on the A2, in the town of Thun-l'Evêque (near Cambrai), about forty km from the Belgian border. He is accompanied by Mohamed Amri, 27, and Hamza Attou, 20.

When the gendarmes consult the SIS file (Schengen), Salah Abdeslam only appears to be subject to "discreet control", that is to say, "for the purpose of collecting intelligence" (2) . What is called in police jargon a 36.2 and not a 36.3 (threat to state security) (3). A divergence in Belgian and French practices (see box) which will prove fatal. Certainly the individual was co-reported by the Belgian anti-terrorist services (4). But this subtlety escapes both the gendarmes on the spot and their superiors, it seems. Ditto for the Interpol file, no one thinks of consulting it apparently while Abdeslam appears well as linked to terrorism (5).

9 p.m., the French gendarmes hold the vehicle for the time of the checks. He is released, half an hour later (according to the report of the French commission of inquiry), the normal time for a "discreet check", which is not a thorough check (6).

9 p.m., the permanence of SPOC (single point of operational contact) Belgium receives a G form from the Sirene office in France, indicating the content of the check. It mentions: " The person concerned was in a dark gray Golf vehicle registered in Belgium. Two other individuals on board, Attou Hamza (with date of birth), Amri Mohammed (with date of birth). All declared returning from a cousin's home in Barbès, Paris. We will send you all copies of the documents presented upon receipt. »

9 p.m., after recording this “hit” and searching for a series of data, the Belgian SPOC transmits the message to the central terrorism unit of the federal police. November 14 is a Saturday. The " communication passes through the permanent office of the judicial police operations department ". So just a few more minutes.

10 p.m., a Belgian SPOC operator calls back the French Sirène office, inviting them to “do exercise of caution “, when the case is related to terrorism, although this is not reflected in the description. The French Sirene office replies that it transmits this information to the police team that carried out the check.

NB: At this time, the man has already been released. But apparently the Belgians are not informed.

10 p.m., Sirène France sends more precise information to its Belgian counterparts: “ the vehicle was left free after the check due to article 36.2. Because of the elements you brought us in relation to Syria, the patrol was asked to intercept him again, but it was already too late. The vehicle is currently driving on the A2 motorway towards Belgium, which may already be at your border ". This message is immediately transmitted, on the Belgian side, by the CGI (the police cooperation department of the federal police), both to the permanent office of the judicial police operations department and to the administrative police operations department (responsible to alert the traffic police)...

NB: The message seems to get lost along the way. But it is really very late. It's been more than an hour since the Golf was released by the gendarmes. It is almost at the gates of Brussels (at normal speed). Too late...

Epilogue: On November 15, 2015 - the day after the Cambrai check - the international report was changed, the Brussels Federal Judicial Police reported Salah Abdeslam as being wanted and arrested.

Conclusion: everyone can get an idea and blame one or the other. Each parliamentary committee has thus thrown opprobrium on its neighbour. It would have been interesting to make a "feedback" in common...

In this case, if we understand what happened, small careless errors in the consultation of the databases (French side), a lack of responsiveness, causing delays of a few minutes, precious, in the transmission of information (especially on the French side but also on the Belgian side), a serious lack of insertion of certain details in the databases (Belgian side), and a certain ignition delay (on the French side as well as on the Belgian side), added to a complexity or lack of anticipation of European tools (the famous Schengen file) produced, at the end of the chain, a fatal error: an individual, although suspected of links with terrorism, heading for Belgium, was released on very day after the attacks of November 13, with two of his "accomplices". And he vanishes in the wild for several weeks...

(Nicolas Gros-Verheyde)

A difference of opinion between France and Belgium on the insertion in the Schengen file

France used to report suspected foreign terrorist fighters on the basis of 36.3. A "solitary" policy then. " At the end of 2015, there were very few such reports from other Member States of the European Union. Some Member States have never even used this option. “indicates the commission of inquiry. This policy changed after the Bataclan attacks, with the EU Council of Ministers expressly asking all states to ensure " that national authorities systematically enter data on all suspected foreign terrorist fighters into SIS II, in particular pursuant to Article 36.3 ". In Belgium, it took some time for this data to apply. “The first report made by State Security under article 36.3 only dates from September 30, 2016.”

(1) "Contrary to what the French commission of inquiry claims, our services were in no way negligent and did not commit any faults either" emphasizes the Belgian commission of inquiry (provisional report of the House of Representatives of the June 15, 2017, § 4.2.4., p. 427)

(2) The first report of Salah Abdeslam in the SIS was issued by the Brussels-West (Molenbeek) police zone on February 9, 2015. This "clearly specified the existence of a link with terrorism in the request for an international alert”. But this is not included in the "Schengen" file consulted by the gendarmes. For the Belgians, such a report was not possible (see box).

(3) Paragraph 2 of Article 36 of the Schengen Code concerns alerts for the repression of criminal offences; paragraph 3 refers more specifically to the serious threat OR other serious threats to the internal and external security of the State.

(4) He was also entered into the Interpol database, flagged for terrorism, for the purpose of “discreet surveillance” and not an arrest. A rather exceptional practice acknowledge the Belgian deputies. The Sirene manual governing the Schengen system thus indicates that parallel alerts in the SIS II and via Interpol in the Schengen area should be avoided. The use of Interpol alerts will therefore be “limited to exceptional cases.

(5) The Central Anti-Terrorism Unit of the Federal Police (DJSOC/Terro) has indeed made a request to report Salah Abdeslam. But the rule is only one report "can't do" for the same entity in a single country, this second report was not retained ". The Belgian CGI SPOC simply registered DJSOC/Terro as a co-reporting service asking it to liaise with the Brussels-West police zone.

(6) At the time, it was not yet possible to add a mention of "terrorism" when a person is the subject only of an alert under article 36.2 (discreet check). This was only made possible according to a European decision on February 23, 2015 (according to a Commission decision of January 29, 2015, published in the OJ on February 18). But Belgium is dragging on for updates. The College of Attorneys General, like the memoranda of the judicial pillar of the federal police, believe that there is a need " to update [the sheets] only [for] reports for specific checks and not those for discreet surveillance ».

Nicolas Gros Verheyde

Chief editor of the B2 site. Graduated in European law from the University of Paris I Pantheon Sorbonne and listener to the 65th session of the IHEDN (Institut des Hautes Etudes de la Défense Nationale. Journalist since 1989, founded B2 - Bruxelles2 in 2008. EU/NATO correspondent in Brussels for Sud-Ouest (previously West-France and France-Soir).