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Investigation Into Brussels Bomber Reveals Past Terrorism Ties


The story of Ibrahim el-Bakraoui, identified as one of the Brussels bombers, raises an obvious question. Why was he at large? It's not just that he's now linked to the cell that organized the Paris attacks of last November. Before that, he had been convicted of a violent felony and was sentenced to nine years in prison six years ago. Matthias Verbergt is a reporter for The Wall Street Journal who joins us via Skype from Brussels. Welcome to the program.

MATTHIAS VERBERGT: Hi. Thank you. Thanks for having me.

SIEGEL: In 2010, Ibrahim el-Bakraoui was sentenced for his role in an armed robbery. Tell us, in a nutshell, what we know about that crime.

VERBERGT: Yeah. So in 2010, he was convicted for nine years of prison in Belgium after he took part in the robbery of a currency exchange office in Brussels. And during that crime, he shot a police with at police with a Kalashnikov gun.

SIEGEL: At the time, the mayor of Brussels, I gather, was rather dismissive about this just kind of run-of-the-mill crime, he said.

VERBERGT: Yes. He said - he used the word - the French word (speaking French), which translate as something that is not very important to report. So at the time, he got a lot of criticism from both police unions and also politicians.

SIEGEL: In short, el-Bakraoui - this is Ibrahim el-Bakraoui - was known. This was a figure who had been in the news back in 2010.

VERBERGT: Yes, yes. I remember even myself very vividly the controversy around that fact. So he was definitely known to, let's say, the people who follow crime in Brussels scene.

SIEGEL: First puzzlement about his case - he's sentenced to nine years, but he was on parole by 2014 four years later. How is that?

VERBERGT: That's because in Belgium, after one-third or half of the sentence, people can ask for parole. This was originally created to reintegrate these inmates as soon as possible into society and to give them some perspective as to their release.

SIEGEL: So that's not unusual in itself, that somebody sentenced to nine years would be out in four.

VERBERGT: It's not unusual in Belgium at all. Most of the criminal cases, people are being released prematurely.

SIEGEL: A year after he was paroled, el-Bakraoui then turns up in Turkey. There's some dispute as to when he was expelled from Turkey. Did the Belgians know, or did only the Dutch know that? But there doesn't seem to be a dispute that he was in Turkey, near the border with Syria. Would that be in keeping with the terms of parole?

VERBERGT: The term of the parole can be that a person cannot leave the country. Now, in Mr. el-Bakraoui's case, Ibrahim, this wasn't set as a condition, but he did breach his conditions by not turning up to meetings that were set with judicial officials during the time of his parole. So he he did breach some conditions. When the Belgian justice system knew about the breaching of these conditions, he was in Turkey already, so they lost track of him.

SIEGEL: And then there's a dispute as to whether the Belgians knew that the Turks suspected him of some involvement with Syria and were deporting him. What's the most recent that you know on that score?

VERBERGT: The Belgian justice minister, Koen Geens, has said yesterday night that his services were alarmed by the Turks that a Belgian national was caught near the Syrian border. Mr. Geens, the justice minister, said that the Turks, however, didn't immediately say that he was suspected of terrorist crimes. He was at that time only known to Belgian officials as a criminal but not as a terrorist.

SIEGEL: Matthias Verbergt, thank you very much for talking with us today.

VERBERGT: Thank you for having me.

SIEGEL: Mr. Verbergt is a reporter for The Wall Street Journal. He spoke to us from Brussels. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.