The Belgian Minister of Justice, Vincent Van Quickenborne, has stepped down, taking responsibility for errors made regarding the terror attack in Brussels on October 16.
After more details were revealed about Abdesalem Lassoued, the terrorist who killed two Swedes and wounded a taxi driver in the capital, it became obvious the justice department in Belgium had made serious mistakes.
Department officials did not follow up on Lassoued, who had jihadist sympathies and was deemed an obvious danger to society. To make matters worse, following the attack, the government and Van Quickenborne in particular stated that everyone involved had done a good job but that the terrorist had simply fallen through the cracks.
The main issue, Van Quickenborne strongly insisted at the time, was Tunisia being a difficult country to work with because it was almost impossible to send back illegal migrants from there.
Unfortunately for him, it soon became clear the problem was not Tunisia at all, quite the contrary. The country had repeatedly asked for the extradition of Lassoued because he had been sentenced to 26 years for two attempted murders there.
Once Tunisian officials had discovered he was in Belgium, they had explicitly asked for an extradition and also asked Interpol to issue a Red Notice.
That meant Lassoued was internationally listed as a dangerous criminal and should have been arrested immediately.
The Belgian justice department did not investigate his file at all.
The embarrassing situation reflects on many security services in Europe, as Lassoued was free to travel across the Continent for years. He was even able to leave the European Union to visit Norway and return unhindered.
It also became clear the Belgian police knew he was in the country. Law enforcement attempted to check in on him at what they thought was his home address over reports of a possible sham wedding. They visited the wrong house.
Leaving a dangerous criminal, a suspected jihadist, at large until he launched his attack and murdered people proved the final straw regarding Van Quickenborne’s position.
In stepping down, he said he had no alternative but to present his resignation to Prime Minister Alexander De Croo.
He said: “Even though this is the work of an individual independent magistrate” and that he “could not intervene as Minister of Justice,” he added he wanted to accept “political responsibility”.
The resignation is causing shockwaves across the Belgian political landscape. Many are now looking at interior minister Annelies Verlinden as she is head of the police. Some say she should also bear responsibility regarding Lassoued.
While De Croo has already found a replacement for Van Quickenborne in Paul Van Tigchelt, that seems to have made matters worse.
Van Tigchelt is a legal expert who ended up as the head of the Coordination Unit for Threat Analysis in Belgium, the service tasked with monitoring the possibility of terrorist and extremist threats.
The opposition claims Van Tigchelt is an unelected partisan apparatchik who was responsible for not putting Lassoued on the terror list in the first place. It also claims he has a track record of being soft on Islamic terrorism while exaggerating the danger of alleged right-wing extremism.
He was forced to resign from his job in the cabinet of the then-Liberal minister of internal affairs Patrick Dewael in 2008 over a corruption probe.
But the blowback is even worse within the Liberal party of De Croo. Van Tigchelt worked as the right-hand man of Van Quickenborne and was a member of his cabinet. His promotion means important political figures who felt entitled to the job have been bypassed.
Since the appointment, an open revolt has ensued within the Dutch-speaking Liberal party, Open VLD. Several prominent politicians have now suggested leaving the party altogether amid disastrous polling.
While there was criticism beforehand of De Croo’s leadership, an existential crisis now seems to be brewing.