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Brussels blunders: How Europe ignored key warnings from Turkey

Turkey has provided Europe with crucial security information to protect the continent from terrorism. So why were they ignored?

As some Western pundits and so-called experts continue to lay the blame for the existence of the Islamic State (IS) terrorist group at Turkey's door, it remains a fact that in the real world Ankara has provided Europe with crucial security information to protect the continent from terrorism.

The recent terrorist attacks in Brussels mark the third major assault in the heart of Europe in just over a year, and yet once again EU member states failed to pay attention to warnings by Turkey, leading to a tragic loss of lives.

Ibrahim El Bakraoui, 29, one of the two brothers identified by Belgium for being responsible for the attacks that killed at least 31 people in Brussels on 22 March, entered Turkey on 11 June, 2015 and was detained by Turkish authorities with three other suspects at Gaziantep, a town close to the border with Syria, on 14 June. He was subsequently deported with another foreign IS militant.

Ankara notified the authorities in Belgium and the Netherlands, where Bakraoui said he lived. However, he was freed after his deportation on the grounds of "no evidence of crime". The remaining two captured militants were Turkish citizens and are still imprisoned in Turkey on the grounds of membership of a terrorist organisation.

The Belgian authorities also knew last year of suspected links between Bakraoui and the November attacks in Paris, prosecutors said on Thursday, while two cabinet ministers acknowledged mistakes in the handling of the terror network. Reuters also reported that the Bakraoui brothers were on a US terrorism watchlist, and Dutch officials confirmed that Turkey had deported Ibrahim with a letter titled "URGENT" to Netherlands.

The Belgian government admitted their errors in preventing the Brussels attacks. Justice Minister Koen Geens, according to FoxNews, said Belgian security should "should perhaps have been more critical about the place where the person had been detained," referring to Turkey's border area with Syria.

"When someone is arrested there in a city few people know, it is clear enough for insiders that it could be a terrorist," he said, basically conceding that it was not rocket science to know that a person being detained near the Syria border and being deported by Turkey was an important matter to investigate.

According to Reuters, Belgian officials have said in regard to previous cases "that without evidence of crime, such as having fought in Syria, they cannot jail people deported from Turkey. Among such cases was Brahim Abdeslam, one of the suicide bombers in Paris in November, who was also sent back to Belgium from Turkey early last year."

French connection

Turkey also warned France twice about Omar Ismail Mostefai, one of three attackers at the Bataclan concert hall in Paris where 89 people were killed in the bloodiest scene of the November carnage. "We did, however, not hear back from France on the matter," a Turkish official was reported as saying. Turkish officials also said they foiled a major terror attack in Istanbul on the very same day the Paris attacks occurred.

Previously, Turkish officials announced that Hayat Boumeddiene, the 26-year-old wanted partner of the gunman who killed four people and held more hostages in a Paris kosher supermarket following the Charlie Hebdo killings in Paris in January 2015 and was killed by police, arrived in Turkey before the killings and is possibly now in Syria, Daily Sabah reported. Turkish intelligence tracked her moves during her stay in Turkey "and sought intelligence from their French counterparts, a request that the French authorities ignored," according to Daily Sabah.

Another suspected French national IS militant, Faradje Abidat, was deported by Turkey in September 2014 then returned to the country and was captured by Turkish security at a town near the Syria border. He was again deported, and it is unknown whether he was released again by the French authorities.

More interestingly, in September 2015 three men suspected of links with IS in Syria and who were deported by Turkey were not arrested upon their return to France, as French police waited for them at Paris's Orly Airport instead of at the airport in Marseille, Daily Sabah reported. "French media bitterly criticised the French interior ministry over the serious security breach, as the ministry had earlier released a statement that the three men were arrested upon their return to France. Further problems were avoided" as the men later handed themselves into the police, the report said.

In early March, Turkish security caught two men "arriving at an airport in Istanbul with one-way tickets and camouflage gear," the Washington Post reported. "The two were sent back to Sweden and trouble was apparently averted - until eight days later, when the same duo turned up at a Turkish seaport, this time arriving by ferry from the Greek island of Kos."

The Washington Post reported that "When asked about the Swedish fighters intercepted by Turkey, officials in Stockholm said they are powerless."

The report quoted Fredrik Milder, a press officer with Swedish security, as saying: "It is not illegal to travel from Sweden to other countries, even to Iraq and Syria. It is not illegal to join ISIS. We have different laws, so I don’t understand what our Turkish colleagues expect." 

Turkey has also taken extensive measures along its southern borders, building concrete barriers, erecting wire fencing, and establishing additional security lighting and risk analysis centres to detect suspects at airports and bus terminals as part of the country’s counterterrorism drive.

Deporting and banning "foreign fighters" heading to join groups such as IS has been a common practice used by Turkey against the infiltration of terror groups to its Syrian and Iraqi borders. Turkey has barred 38,269 suspects from 128 countries since 2011 and deported 3,290 suspects from 95 countries.

What about Turkey's security?

Putting aside the lack of appreciation of Turkey's efforts to prevent terror attacks, the Europeans have even failed to help or even show solidarity when terrorists from IS and the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK)  blow themselves up in Istanbul or Ankara.

Instead, the PKK was allowed to set up a tent just outside the European Council building this month, when a EU-Turkey summit was to be held there. The EU, which also recognises the PKK as a terrorist group, kept silent on the event, although the tent was temporarily removed after Turkish Prime Minster Ahmet Davutoglu threatened that he would not join the summit.

Such an actıon angered Turks, and Davutoglu expressed his "deep disappointment" over the stance by some EU countries towards the PKK.

"While we're mourning the death of 35 civilians killed in a terrorist attack [in Ankara, days earlier], people from the same terrorist organisation were allowed to set up tents and wave their flags right outside this building," he said.

Meanwhile, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan also criticised the West for not distancing itself from terrorist groups such as the PKK and the DHKP-C (the Revolutionary People's Liberation Party-Front).

European politicians may not like the government of Turkey or its leaders, but they have to respect the will of the Turkish people and their representatives. As Turkey is a candidate country that has been waiting at the doors of the EU for over half a century, the EU surely has a right to raise criticism or suggestions regarding Turkey's inner politics. However, no logic can explain how such a bloc could ignore extradition requests for hundreds of terrorists whose aim is to kill more and more people in Turkey.

Not only has the EU disregarded the values that it claims to advocate, and has double standards with regards to what it expects from Ankara, but its actions are endangering innocent Turkish lives. Never mind the lies in the press, but as Ankara continues to work to protect Europe, some Europeans are bent on undermining the security of Turkey.

- Mehmet Solmaz is a Turkish-British journalist who covers news developments in Turkey and the region for the Daily Sabah newspaper. He also frequently appears in international media to comment on Turkish politics and diplomacy.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: A drawing by French cartoonist Plantu depicting the Brussels and Paris attacks lies between candles and flowers at a makeshift memorial at Place de la Bourse (Beursplein) in Brussels on 23 March 2016 (AFP).