BRUSSELS — Belgian authorities missed a chance to press a key terrorism suspect for intelligence in the days ahead of the suicide bombings that struck the capital, prosecutors said Friday, acknowledging a significant security lapse that may have allowed his allies to attack unimpeded.
Even as the men involved in Tuesday’s attacks were racing to strike, fearful that authorities were closing in on them, investigators did not ask the attackers’ jailed ally, Salah Abdeslam, about his knowledge of future plots, Belgian federal prosecutors said Friday.
Abdeslam, believed to be the logistics chief of the Islamic State’s November attacks in Paris, was apprehended March 18, apparently spurring one of the Brussels attackers to write that he feared capture by the police. But after Abdeslam’s arrest, investigators concentrated solely on the Paris attacks. Abdeslam was questioned for two hours last Saturday, the day after he was captured in a raid at a Brussels safe house — and then no other discussions were held until after Tuesday’s attacks, when he refused to speak further, prosecutors said.
The failure to push Abdeslam for concrete intelligence — even as close associates were known to be on the loose — adds to an emerging picture of intelligence agencies, police forces and criminal investigators that repeatedly failed to take advantage of opportunities to avert the attacks on Tuesday, the worst single day of violence in Belgium since World War II.
“We cannot exclude that, if everybody had been perfect, this could have gone differently,” Belgian Justice Minister Koen Geens told a special session of Parliament convened Friday to question top security officials about the lapses.
The acknowledgment from the prosecutors came as authorities conducted raids across Brussels and in France and Germany, an indication that they were still hotly pursuing terrorist plots and that the network may spread across a wide stretch of Europe.
Two Belgian Islamic State fighters threatened that “this is just the beginning of your nightmare,” in a video released Friday. “Know we have other targets and we are determined,” said a man identified as Abu Abdullah al-Beljiki, according to a translation by the SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors jihadist propaganda.
Belgian commandos and bomb-disposal units on Friday swept through a district at the heart of the Brussels attack probe. The raids followed police operations in France and Germany that displayed the expanding crackdowns that increasingly connect the last two terrorist blows in Europe: November’s bloodshed across Paris and Tuesday’s twin-site suicide bombings in Brussels that killed at least 31 people — including at least two Americans.
Among those arrested in the latest roundups was a French suspect who officials believe was directing a plot for an impending attack in France. The investigation touched off a series of related police raids in Belgium on Friday.
The police actions came as Secretary of State John F. Kerry touched down in Brussels to discuss strategies about how to combat the Islamic State with top European leaders. Kerry met with Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel before joining a Europe-wide security meeting to examine ways to counter militant reach into the continent. Officials have raised alarms about potential threats from citizens returning after fighting with the Islamic State and other groups.
Speaking to reporters after a meeting with Michel, Kerry defended Belgium’s security efforts. He said that it appeared to him at first glance that the Brussels attackers were moved to act because they feared being apprehended by authorities.
“That tells you the dragnet is closing in. It tells you law enforcement is in fact having an impact,” Kerry said. “It may not have worked out as everyone might have wished here, but if that is true . . . it tells you a lot about what’s beginning to become effective.”
But even Abdeslam’s attorney has suggested that his client may possess knowledge that could avert future terrorist attacks on European soil, further highlighting the lapse by Belgian investigators not to press Abdeslam for intelligence ahead of the Brussels attacks. The prosecutors said that they were slowed by the doctors’ treatment of the gunshot wound to the leg that Abdeslam suffered in the raid before his capture.
Abdeslam was not “up to date” about the Brussels attacks, his attorney, Sven Mary, told the Europe 1 radio network on Thursday.
But, Mary said, “I would not want him to stop talking for lots of reasons. To stop talking could face us again with other Zaventems and other Bataclans, and I would perhaps like to avoid that.”
He was referring to Brussels Airport in Zaventem, where two suicide bombers struck on Tuesday, and the Bataclan nightclub in Paris that was a target of the November attacks.
In raids across Brussels on Friday, police detained three people, including in a large operation in the Schaerbeek area, which has become a focal point of investigations into Tuesday’s attacks. Dozens of black-clad security officers swarmed a wide avenue to detain one person, setting off fears in a city still on edge from the recent violence.
Belgian TV aired amateur footage of the detention that appeared to show a man who had been shot in the leg being dragged away from a tram stop by counterterrorism police while a bomb-disposal robot waited nearby. Belgian prosecutors said the man was arrested in connection with a French raid a day earlier.
In Germany, authorities held a man who was deported from Turkey in July alongside Brussels suicide attacker Ibrahim el-Bakraoui, 29, over suspicions of trying to fight in Syria. A German official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said it was not immediately clear whether the man detained Thursday had direct ties to Bakraoui.
Both Bakraoui and his 27-year-old brother, Khalid el-Bakraoui, who also blew himself up on Tuesday, were on a U.S. terrorism watch list ahead of the attack, according to a U.S. official speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters.
It was not clear whether they had been on the U.S. “no-fly” list.
Neighbors said Friday that the Bakraoui family appeared unexceptional in the diverse Laeken area of Brussels. The brothers’ father was a butcher and their mother is a housewife. As for the siblings themselves, “they seemed very nice people, never the thugs with the caps who make people scared. Absolutely not,” said Fatima, 31, a family friend and neighbor who spoke on the condition that her last name not be used.
Belgium’s federal prosecutor said Friday that the suspect detained in a raid the previous night in the Paris suburb of Argenteuil is believed to have connections to Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the deceased ringleader of the November attacks that left 130 dead.
Reda Kriket, a 34-year-old French citizen, had been convicted in a Belgian court in July of participating in the activities of a terrorist group, the prosecutor said. French authorities said that he had been planning an imminent attack on their country.
Meanwhile, the list of the Brussels victims became clearer.
At least two Americans were killed, a U.S. official said Friday, but their names were not disclosed.
Also among the dead from the airport bombings: a Dutch brother and sister who lived in the United States. They were Alexander Pinczowski, 29, and Sascha Pinczowski, 26, said a representative for their family, James Cain.
Cain, the father of Alexander Pinczowski’s fiancee and a former U.S. ambassador to Denmark, said the siblings had hoped to become U.S. citizens.
The Belgian Foreign Ministry announced that André Adam, a former ambassador to the United States, died in the attacks.
Britain, China and France also confirmed at least one citizen each among the fatalities, while the Netherlands confirmed one citizen in addition to the Pinczowskis.
James McAuley, Missy Ryan, Annabell Van den Berghe and Souad Mekhennet in Brussels and Adam Goldman, Lindsey Bever and Brian Murphy in Washington contributed to this report.