A 45-year-old man who gunned down two Swedish nationals on Monday night in Brussels and was shot dead by the police on Tuesday morning had been known to Belgian security services for the better part of the decade, Belgian officials said.
For the seven years leading up to his attacks on Monday night, which have been described as “terrorism” by the Belgian authorities, the man had left a trail of criminal activity and ample signs that he was radicalized, including reported suspicious behavior and prolific online posts on social media.
His case was finally to be addressed by the authorities in a meeting that had been scheduled for Tuesday. It was too late.
The Belgian attack was the second in a week in Europe, following the killing of a teacher in France, by extremists well known to authorities that have highlighted the failures of complicated and bureaucratic systems put in place after a wave of terrorism in 2015 and 2016. That system is now coming under renewed scrutiny as the authorities and citizens worry about a possible reawakening of radicalism in Europe because of the war in the Middle East.
The cases are also likely to add fuel to renewed debates over immigration in Europe, though, in the case of the Brussels attacker, the man’s history shows that Belgians of migrant background and an asylum seeker had flagged him as a risk, alerting the authorities to the suspicious behavior and troubled past, and it was the authorities who failed to act on that intelligence.
An unidentified foreign intelligence service also warned the Belgian authorities in July 2016 that a man living in Brussels had been radicalized and was looking to fight in “a conflict zone,” officials said. No action against him was taken.
“There were countless reports like that at the time, dozens of reports of that nature per day,” the Belgian justice minister, Vincent Van Quickenborne, told the news media on Tuesday. “That information was then investigated, and nothing further could be done with it.”
Three years later, that same man applied for asylum in Belgium and was swiftly rejected, but “disappeared from the radar” before he could be deported, according to Belgium’s migration minister, Nicole de Moor, who spoke at the same news conference as Mr. Quickenborne on Tuesday.
Ms. de Moor said the man was never taken to the immigration authorities for deportation by the police. “As a result, the order to leave the territory, issued in March 2021, was not delivered,” she said.
Immigration services looking to deport him may have lost him, but other parts of the Belgian security apparatus knew where he was and what he was doing, based on Mr. Quickenborne’s statements Tuesday.
While the suspect’s identity was not formally released, Belgian news outlets identified him as Abdesalem Lassoued.
In June 2022, he was flagged to a special local task force in Brussels for behaving suspiciously at a mosque. This was a sign that a system set up in the aftermath of Belgium’s disastrous handling of intelligence in the lead-up to the massive Paris terror attacks in November 2015 was working. Intelligence was circulating, and the relevant authorities were made aware of possible suspects.
Yet nothing happened after that red flag, Mr. Quickenborne said on Tuesday. “This was reported to the Brussels local task force and did not trigger any further action,” he said.
Still, the authorities were presented with one last chance to detain and deport him. Earlier this year a Tunisian asylum seeker went to the police to report that the man had threatened him. The asylum seeker also reported that the man was a convicted terrorist back home.
In response to this latest red flag, the Belgian authorities convened their “joint information center,” a sort of high-level forum to discuss the man’s activities, evidence of which had been mounting for seven years.
“He was flagged by the police for questioning and arrest for having no [legal] residence in our country, and because of the possible conviction for terrorism in Tunisia, the Antwerp Federal Judicial Police decided on Sunday evening, 15 October, to convene a Joint Information Centre,” Mr. Quickenborne said.
That meeting was scheduled for Tuesday. It is not clear whether the man knew that these procedures were taking place and if they influenced his decision to launch his attack on Monday night.
On Tuesday morning, the police shot him after an overnight manhunt around Brussels, the Belgian capital. The authorities found him at a cafe near his home at 8 a.m. Tuesday after a local resident placed a call. He died in a hospital, the prosecutor’s office said adding that a weapon and bag of clothes was found at the scene after the man was shot.
The shooting in central Brussels on Monday evening, before a scheduled soccer match between Sweden and Belgium, was described as terrorism by Prime Minister Alexander De Croo. It shocked the Belgian capital, which has a painful history of terrorist attacks. Islamic State militants carried out bombings there in 2016 that killed more than 30 people and wounded hundreds more.
“I have just offered my sincere condolences to @SwedishPM following tonight’s harrowing attack on Swedish citizens in Brussels,” Mr. de Croo said on X, formerly known as Twitter, on Monday. “Our thoughts are with the families and friends who lost their loved ones. As close partners the fight against terrorism is a joint one.”
The victims were wearing Sweden soccer shirts and may have been preparing to attend the game at a stadium in northern Brussels. The game was suspended after the shooting, but several hours passed before fans at the stadium were allowed to leave. A third person, a taxi driver, was also shot but was out of danger in hospital.
An unverified video of the attack circulating on social media showed a man in a white helmet and a high-visibility orange jacket pursuing and shooting at his victims, who ran into a building, and then shooting them again at closer range.
Another unverified video circulating on social media, shot in selfie mode, showed a man in a jacket very similar to the one worn by the gunman in the other video, speaking in Arabic and describing himself as an adherent of the Islamic State.
“So there has been a claim via social media where someone says he is the perpetrator, that he has sympathies for I.S., and what is also important, he mentions the Swedish nationality of those victims,” Eric Van Der Sypt, a spokesman for the federal prosecutor’s office, told the Belgian broadcaster VTM on Monday evening.
The man’s Facebook account, since deleted, contained pro-Palestinian comments as well a post decrying the killing of a young Palestinian American boy in a Chicago suburb this week in authorities say was a hate crime.
The bloodshed in Israel and Gaza since the Hamas attack of Oct. 7 has raised concerns in many countries that sympathizers with one side or the other might carry out violent acts.
The threat level in Brussels was raised after the attack, and France has tightened controls at its border with Belgium, France’s interior minister, Gérald Darmanin, said.
The Belgian authorities have also failed to thwart earlier terrorist threats. Several of the Islamic State attackers who carried out the November 2015 attacks in Paris that killed more than 100 people had been based in Belgium and were known to the authorities.
The Belgian capital is home to the leading institutions for the European Union as well as NATO headquarters.
The European Commission, which employs thousands of people, urged employees to work from home on Tuesday, and many schools remained closed for the day.
Koba Ryckewaert contributed reporting from Brussels, and Liam Stack from New York.