Belgian financial investigators looking into recent terror plots have discovered a disturbing trend: Some of the suspects were collecting welfare benefits until shortly before they carried out their attacks.
At least five of the alleged plotters in the Paris and Brussels terror attacks partly financed themselves with payments from Belgium’s generous social-welfare system, authorities have concluded. In total they received more than €50,000, or about $56,000 at today’s rate.
The main surviving Paris suspect, Salah Abdeslam, collected unemployment benefits until three weeks before the November attacks—€19,000 in all, according to people familiar with the case. At the time, he was manager and part-owner of a bar, which Belgian officials say should have made him ineligible.
Many of the participants in a disrupted Belgian terror plot also had been on the dole, according to the judge who sentenced more than a dozen people in the so-called Verviers cell last month. Police thwarted the plot early last year, finding explosives, weapons and police uniforms after a shootout that killed two people.
The revelations raise a difficult conundrum for Europe. On one hand, the modern welfare state is a primary tool for combating poverty as well as integrating immigrants. On the other, officials are working hard to find and stop potential sources of revenue for those bent on committing terrorist atrocities.
“We’ve identified that the benefit system is vulnerable to abuse for terrorist financing purposes,” said Tom Keatinge, director of the Centre for Financial Crime and Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute in London. “What are we going to do about that?”
European governments may want to give benefits in the form of vouchers, or re-examine their hands-off approach to how people spend their benefits, Mr. Keatinge said. “If you’re paying benefit to people in certain parts of Brussels, maybe you need to be a little more observant about who you’re paying to, and what they might be doing with it.”
All of the Paris and Brussels terror suspects known to have received welfare were EU citizens.
Philippe de Koster, director of Belgium’s Financial Intelligence Processing Unit, said security and welfare officials need better coordination to avoid benefits being paid to “people suspected of financing terrorist activities.”
That would require a change in law, because currently benefits can be cut only after a person is convicted of terrorism, or the suspect leaves the country.
Mr. de Koster, whose agency investigated the financial side of the Paris and Brussels attacks, said there is no evidence that welfare benefits were used by the alleged plotters to directly finance those attacks. But, he said, “social-welfare benefits provided them with livelihoods and indirect support for their terrorist activities.”
In some cases, Mr. de Koster said, suspects transferred welfare money onto prepaid debit cards that later were used in the twin attacks. He wouldn’t provide details, saying the matter was classified and part of a continuing investigation.
Stemming terror financing has been a major goal of governments around the globe. While the focus has been on depriving Islamic State of oil revenue and other macro financing sources, officials also are trying to cut off local funding avenues for small-cell and lone-wolf attacks.
The task is difficult because the sums are so small. Officials have estimated it cost less than €30,000 to carry out the Paris attacks, and less than €3,000 for the Brussels attacks. The Tunisian immigrant who mowed down scores of people in Nice, France, paid €1,600 to rent the truck used in the attack, prosecutors said.
Government officials have identified student-loan fraud, insurance scams and robbery as among the money sources for terror suspects in the West.
Islamic State itself suggested welfare benefits as a financing source, in a 2015 manual called “How to Survive in the West: A Mujahid Guide.” In a section headed “Easy Money Ideas,” the manual suggested “if you can claim extra benefits from a government, then do so.”
European countries including Belgium, France, Netherlands and Denmark collectively have cut off hundreds of people from welfare after discovering they had traveled to Syria to fight with Islamic State.
Legislation pending in the Netherlands would make it easier to cut off suspected foreign terrorist fighters after a finding by intelligence services.
“We don’t want violent jihadist activities to be funded by Dutch taxpayers,” Minister of Social Affairs Lodewijk Asscher has said. People who return from Syria and are prosecuted won’t get benefits restored; those who aren’t prosecuted must reapply.
In Belgium, officials last fall found that seven suspected foreign fighters who had left the country and 15 returnees from Syria were receiving unemployment benefits. Five proven to be in Syria were cut off, officials said, but there were no legal grounds to suspend payments to the others.
Since the Brussels attacks in March, checks by officials have become more frequent, one Belgian official said. One in April by the National Employment Office, conducted after revelations by the public broadcaster, found that 14 terrorism detainees had received benefits while in prison.
Fred Cauderlier, the Belgian prime minister’s spokesman, said a law was changed following the Paris attacks to prevent people convicted of terrorism from receiving benefits while in jail.
He defended his country’s welfare system and said it would be an “offensive intellectual shortcut” to say that welfare benefits sponsored the Paris and Brussels attacks. “This is a democracy,” he said. “We have no tools to check how people spend their benefits.”
In Belgium, people exiting prison often receive social benefits to help reintegrate into society. This was the case with Khalid el-Bakraoui, who served two years in prison before blowing himself up in the Maelbeek subway station in Brussels in March.
Bakraoui was given jobless benefits in early 2014, after a stint in prison for armed robbery and carjacking. In total, he collected about €25,000 in unemployment, medical and other benefits, according to one of the people familiar with the case.
He wasn’t shut off until last December, when Belgian authorities issued a warrant for him in connection with the Paris attacks. He went underground, and using fake IDs rented several hide-outs used by the Paris and Brussels attackers. He later was glorified by Islamic State as one of the main organizers of the March massacre in the Belgian capital.