BRUSSELS (AP) — The alleged attacker who killed two Swedish soccer fans in Brussels this week before he was shot dead by police resided in Belgium illegally and should have left Belgium three years ago.
He never did.
In a country that has been repeatedly rocked by extremist attacks, the government’s inability to deport the 45-year-old Tunisian national and prevent him from carrying out the attack is sparking a fierce political debate.
Many questions remained unanswered as Sweden’s Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson traveled to Brussels on Wednesday to attend a ceremony paying tribute to the victims and meet his Belgian counterpart Alexander De Croo.
How was a man who was on police files, thought to be radicalized and being sought for deportation, able to remain on Belgian soil? How did he obtain a semiautomatic rifle and launch such an attack?
Investigators are still trying to determine the motive for Monday night’s attack, which happened not far from where Belgium’s men’s soccer team was hosting Sweden in a European Championships qualifier. It was the latest of a long list of extremist attacks to hit Belgium, including suicide bombings in 2016 that killed 32 people and injured hundreds more in the Brussels subway and airport.
Authorities believe the suspect acted alone.
Sweden raised its terror alert to the second-highest level in August after a series of public Quran burnings by an Iraqi refugee living in Sweden resulted in threats from Islamic militant groups. Asked if this might be a possible motive, the federal prosecutor’s office said it was too early to tell.
Put on the backfoot by political rivals quick to condemn the inadequacies of Belgium’s deportation policy, De Croo stressed that orders to quit the Belgian territory need to be better enforced.
“An order to leave the territory must become more binding that it is now,” he said. “The people who are not entitled to protection should leave the territory. When we tell you to leave, you need to leave.”
“When two people die, the only thing you can say is that things have gone wrong,” De Croo added.
He also called for better protection of the European Union’s external borders and coordinated return policies across the 27-nation bloc.
Kristersson said he did not blame Belgian authorities for their failure to send the suspect back to his country of origin because “we have exactly the same problem in Sweden, with very many people who are declined asylum but refuse to leave.”
According to Justice Minister Vincent Van Quickenborne, the suspect was denied asylum in 2020. He was known to police and had been suspected of involvement of human trafficking, living illegally in Belgium and of being a risk to state security.
Nicole de Moor, the secretary of state for asylum and migration, said Belgian authorities had lost track of the suspect after his asylum application was refused because he did not want to be housed in a reception center. Authorities were unable to locate him to organize his deportation and he was taken off the national register after six months.
Governments critics, however, pointed out that police were able to quickly find his address and carry out raids at his Brussels flat after the attack. Belgium’s federal prosecutor Frédéric Van Leeuw said the shooter was recognized by the video and that people helped to identify the suspect and to track him down.
Bernard Clerfayt, a Brussels minister who is also the mayor of the Brussels borough where the killings took place, called for de Moor’s resignation.
“Because, once again, she is proving her incompetence and has failed to put in place procedures to resolve problems,” he told La Premiere radio on Wednesday. “There are thousands and thousands of orders to leave the country that have not been carried out, and what’s more, the procedure makes no provision for tracking down the addresses of all these people.”
Van Leeuw, the prosecutor, said Belgian authorities didn’t have much indication about the suspect’s radicalization. They received some intelligence from an unidentified foreign government in 2016 that the man had been radicalized but could not act on it because Belgian authorities were not able to establish it, he said. They saw no signs of radicalization since then. “Radicalization is not a crime either,” he said.
Jesper Tengroth, a spokesman for the Swedish Migration Agency, told Swedish public radio that the suspected gunman lived in Sweden from 2012 to 2014 and spent part of that time in prison before being sent to another EU country.
Official figures showed that only 5,497 of the 25,292 people who received an order to leave Belgium in 2022 have respected it. According to various estimates, some 150,000 people are currently residing illegally in Belgium.
On average in the European Union, only around one in three people whose asylum applications fail ever actually leave. Despite the attack, Belgium is one of the better performers when it comes to deportation.
Forced deportations have a dark history in Belgium. In 1998, Samira Adamu, a Nigerian asylum seeker whose application had been rejected, was suffocated to death by security officials on her plane back to Africa after she tried to resist her deportation. The interior minister at the time resigned over the scandal.
Theo Francken, a lawmaker from the right-wing Flemish nationalist party N-VA, said Belgian authorities should be stricter with criminals and radicalized individuals.
“This must really be the government’s focus. It’s a big mistake not to have done this,” he said.
The fact that the shooter used a semiautomatic rifle highlighted another serious issue for Belgium — the widespread circulation of weapons in a country that struggles to fight fierce drug trafficking.
“Because of drug crime, there is a lot of demand for these kinds of weapons,” Nils Duquet, the director of the Flemish Peace Institute and a weapons expert, told VRT News. “It’s not only serious criminals who get hold of these kinds of weapons these days, but also more minor ones.”
Raf Casert in Brussels contributed.