A Molenbeek Near-Miss

Salah Abdeslam: does that name still ring a bell? He’s the Belgian citizen thought to be among the attackers in Paris last November 13 – and the only one to have escaped alive, aided considerably by what appears to be his decision to shed the regulation suicide-vest he wore at the time and just get out of there. It’s been more than a month and he is still at large. You really have to think that, by now, he is somewhere in Syria, safe under ISIL protection.

There’s a new piece up on the website of the Luxembourg-based newspaper L’Essentiel claiming that the Brussels police came very close to nabbing Abdeslam shortly after that deadly assault. We’re talking here again about Molenbeek, that notorious quarter of central Brussels from which so many radical jihadis have originated, and not just many of those involved in the Paris attack.

To be fair, L’Essentiel is just confirming a scoop first gained by the Flemish commercial television chain VTM, to the effect that Brussels police from Sunday, 15 November were fairly sure Abdeslam was sheltering inside a particular Molenbeek apartment known to be a jihadi safehouse. But they did not move in: they couldn’t, legally, because, according to this article, “House-searches are in fact forbidden by the Belgian penal code between 23.00 and 05.00 hours except in urgent cases such as fires or les flagrants délits,” that latter phrase I assume signifying cases when it is known that crimes are actually being committed there on-scene.

Neither was the case for Abdeslam hiding out there in Molenbeek, so the authorities had to wait until the next morning. By that time they went in, he had given them the slip. By the way, from the timing it is clear this report provides further insight into why Belgian authorities decided to raise the alert levels for Brussels to “Imminent Attack Expected” for that same Sunday and the following couple of days.

Very frustrating, obviously. But this is also very unfortunate from a civil liberties point-of-view. This sort of police-failure – an inability to use the powers they do have, which should be enough – inevitably will accelerate the erosion of citizens’ liberties towards the police that we have already seen too much of following those November attacks.

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