BRUSSELS — The former head of Belgium’s domestic intelligence agency said Tuesday that he repeatedly requested more personnel as the growing threat of Belgian-born jihadists returning to plot Paris-style attacks on home turf became clear — but was instead met with budget cuts.
Alain Winants, who headed the agency for eight years until his departure in 2014, said that his budget was “far below” the necessary level and that he had warned for three years that he needed more resources.
The Nov. 13 attacks in Paris have turned a spotlight on the shortcomings of European intelligence services, particularly in Belgium, where the coordinated bombings and shootings are believed to have been plotted.
The agency has only about 600 employees, covering both operations and analysis, and Belgium has sent more fighters per capita to the ranks of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq than any other country in Europe. But until recent months, it was battling a year of budget reductions.
“Security has a price, and one has to be willing to pay that price,” Winants said. “I explicitly draw the attention to the fact that the security service can go to a certain limit but not below. We reached that limit.”
The service was in need of at least 120 to 150 more people to properly function, he said, with the need “tremendous” as the risk of a blowback from the wars in Iraq and Syria increased.
When the Paris attacks unfolded, the strands quickly led back to Belgium. Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the alleged organizer of the attacks, was from the Molenbeek neighborhood in Brussels and is believed to have spent time in Syria. Salah Abdeslam, a 26-year-old French national who is on the run, lived in Molenbeek with his brother, who blew himself up during the attacks, the deadliest rampage on French soil since World War II.
In the wake of the atrocities, French officials have accused their northern neighbor’s intelligence and security services of missed chances, with attackers reported to have been on their watch lists.
Providing new details of the manhunt Tuesday, the Belgian federal prosecutor’s office said Abdeslam was “checked” by police the morning after the Paris attacks while riding in a Volkswagen Golf with two people on the highway to Brussels. They were allowed to go on their way. But Belgian police arrested Mohammed Amri, the owner of the car, and Hamza Attou, one of the passengers, on Nov. 15 on charges of participating in terrorist activities and a terrorist attack, the office said.
Another person arrested on the same charges was a 39-year-old Moroccan from Molenbeek identified only as Lazez A., the prosecutor’s office said, noting that two pistols and traces of blood were found in his vehicle.
Belgium’s prosecutor’s office on Tuesday identified an additional suspect in connection with the attacks as Ali O., a 31-year-old French national also living in Molenbeek, saying he later drove a vehicle for Abdeslam.
Meanwhile, an international arrest warrant has been issued for another man, Mohamed Abrini, 30, who was spotted two days before the Paris attacks in a vehicle with Abdeslam on the highway to Paris, prosecutors said. They said Abrini was seen on video surveillance at a gas station in Ressons, France, driving a Renault Clio that was used in the attacks. That car and two others used in the attacks had Belgian license plates.
Belgian authorities described Abrini as 5-foot-8 with an athletic build and said he is “armed and dangerous.” Authorities have yet to publicly identify four other men suspected of taking part in the attacks.
French prosecutors said Tuesday that Abaaoud’s phone data put him in the vicinity of the Bataclan theater in Paris, where at least 89 people were killed, between 10:28 p.m. and 12:28 a.m., implying that he may have gone to the scene even as police were intervening.
Winants declined to comment on the details of the investigation but rejected some of the blame on Belgium’s intelligence service. He said that the security agency was one of the first to issue an alert about the threat of fighters returning from Syria but that it was constrained in what it could do about it.
“Every service misses things; there is no service that can protect 100 percent from the risks,” he said. “Successes by an intelligence service are very rarely known.”
He pointed to a foiled attack in Verviers, a town near the German border, in which Belgian security services unearthed a jihadist cell suspected of planning an imminent attack just a week after the Charlie Hebdo shootings in Paris.
After those incidents, the Belgian government began to reassess its intelligence funding. An additional 10 million euros (about $10.7 million) was allocated, reversing planned reductions. After the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, Prime Minister Charles Michel pledged an additional 400 million euros (about $427 million) for extra security measures to fight extremism in the country.
But Winants said it is insufficient, with resources half that of the Netherlands, which borders Belguim. “Belgium as a country has a lack of intelligence culture,” he said, describing “a lack of interest or even mistrust” against the intelligence service among politicians and the public.
Before 2010, the domestic security agency, known as the Sûreté de l’État, was legally unable to use intelligence gathering methods such as bugging, video surveillance, phone taps and computer hacking, a time Winants compares to the “Stone Age.”
“We were armed with bows and arrows compared to the world in which modern intelligence services work,” he said. A new law in 2010 allowed those intelligence-gathering techniques. “We now use them extensively,” he said. However, the level of monitoring necessary has also grown, as extremist recruiters turn to online methods that take large amounts of resources to monitor. “Garage radicalization” recruitment for groups such as the Islamic State that takes place in such meeting spaces as garages rather than in mosques makes monitoring and prevention more difficult, Winants said.
“It’s gigantic work,” he said.
Annabell Van den Berghe in Brussels and Virgile Demoustier in Paris contributed to this report.