Brussels bombings point to large problem for Europe
BEIRUT - Western Europe is bracing for more terrorist bloodbaths as it reels from three waves of Islamic State (ISIS) attacks in France and Belgium in 15 months that killed about 200 people. These may not be long in coming if reports that jihadists have trained 400-600 operatives to wreak havoc across the continent are true.
The Associated Press reported on March 23rd that jihadist fighters, largely from Western Europe, have been given special training to be able to operate independently, unlike earlier groups infiltrated back to the continent from Syria and Iraq.
These “were only given a couple of weeks of training”, a European security official said. “Now the strategy has changed. Special units have been set up. The training is longer. And the objective appears to no longer be killing as many people as possible but rather to have as many terror operations as possible.”
The United States, fearing that the ISIS attacks could spread across the Atlantic, has in recent weeks shifted the focus of its anti-ISIS operations in Syria, Iraq and Libya to going after the group’s leaders, including those directing its external operations wing, which runs the European networks. Several of them have been reported killed or captured.
However, none of these successes have eliminated ISIS sleeper cells in Europe, where intelligence and security forces have clearly been overwhelmed by the intensification of attacks on civilian targets and the growing sophistication of ISIS’s network and operations in establishing bomb-making factories and using encrypted technology to confound their enemies.
European security sources say Belgium’s intelligence agency, for instance, is believed to have 600- 800 personnel, including administrative employees. Of these, about 500 are supposedly assigned to countering ISIS.
It takes six or seven people to maintain around-the-clock surveillance, including telephone wiretapping, on one suspected militant, so keeping track of dozens becomes impossible, and as recent attacks showed, many slip through the cracks.
Government ministers admit that mistakes have been made, particularly concerning one of the Brussels bombers, Ibrahim el-Bakraoui, who was expelled by Turkey in 2015 and flagged as a suspected terrorist, yet was able to carry out a suicide attack at Brussels Airport, killing 11 others.
Belgian Interior Minister Jan Jambon admitted “inexcusable” blunders by the intelligence services, and parliamentarians warned of “structural weaknesses” in Belgium’s security apparatus.
One of the biggest problems in Western Europe that has allowed ISIS to establish itself so firmly is the chronic lack of cooperation between the region’s intelligence and security agencies. It was just such a flaw that was one of the Americans’ critical failures that allowed al- Qaeda to infiltrate the United States and carry out the unprecedented airborne attacks of September 11th, 2001, that thrust the world into a new and infinitely deadlier era of terrorism.
The fault lies largely with the governments of European states that have not provided the funds to create the kind of network in which intelligence is swiftly shared among security services and which could have prevented ISIS carrying out its three major attacks in Brussels and Paris in just over a year.
The sheer scale of the still-expanding jihadist threat, along with the growing sophistication of the ISIS operatives in planning and executing coordinated attacks, has swamped these undermanned security services.
“It’s been clear for some time that European governments urgently need to give their intelligence and law enforcement agencies better tools to deal with the threat as it exists today,” observed Ali Soufan, a Lebanese-born former FBI agent and interrogator who was deeply involved in the war against al- Qaeda.
“EU member states must agree on workable rules for sharing intelligence on their own nationals,” said Soufan, who heads his own New York-based security consultancy. “It’s troubling that the cell that carried out these atrocities (in Brussels) appears to be the same one that assaulted Paris in November… This was possible because Europe’s borders are for the most part entirely open…
“European privacy laws too often inhibit authorities from sharing key information… In other words, terrorist can cross borders more easily than information can… European counterterrorism authorities must configure a plan for pooling resources.”
The terrorism and the threat of a flood of Middle Eastern refugees breaking across Europe’s open borders — one of the European Union’s most cherished ideals — are tearing at European unity. “Beyond national politics and economics, the long-term impacts of the attacks will affect the very fabric of the European Union,” the US-based global security consultancy Stratfor observed.
“Finally,” said Soufan, “governments must tackle areas that are hotbeds of terrorism. A striking number of the Belgians fighting in the Middle East originate in the inner-city Brussels district of Molenbeek”, where the mastermind of the recent attacks, French national Salah Abdeslam, grew up and was apprehended. “Similar districts exist in many other European cities. St Denis in Paris is another troubling example.”
Molenbeek and the neighbouring Schaerbeek districts, where the plotters hid, are typical of the deprived quarters of Western Europe’s cities that are largely populated by North African immigrant families who took them over during the industrial decline in the 1960s and 1970s.
It is clear that the overwhelming majority of the millions of Muslims in Europe are not involved in terrorism and do not support ISIS, but there are members of a younger generation who have been dangerously radicalised, many of them while in prison serving sentences for robbery and shooting at police. Raheem Kassam of the Middle East Forum likens them to “a ticking time bomb”.
An estimated 5,000 young European Muslims have gone to Syria to fight, mostly from Belgium and France. That’s about one-fifth of the foreign fighters who have joined ISIS since 2014.
Security experts say Belgium’s fragmented system of governance — complicated by competing French-and Dutch-speaking regions with their own police agencies and multiple layers of bureaucracy — makes it perfect for terrorist cells to find shelter and support among Europe’s alienated Muslims, a phenomenon likely to increase as states institute ever harsher security measures and suspend human rights in a bid to stem the violence.