FPI Bulletin: Mistakes Paved Way for Brussels Attack

March 31, 2016

One week after the Brussels terrorist attacks, it is increasingly clear that an entrenched network of Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, Daesh) operatives spread across Europe presents a persistent threat to both U.S. and European security. In all, ISIS has reportedly trained “at least 400 fighters to target Europe in deadly waves of attacks, deploying interlocking terror cells…with orders to choose the time, place and method for maximum chaos.” However, their success has depended on the deficiencies of European—in particular, Belgian—law enforcement as much as it has on the ingenuity of the attackers. Despite facing a sizable threat, these agencies have insufficient manpower, coordinate poorly with each other and with foreign counterparts, and have made costly mistakes in the field.

Potent Threat, Insufficient Resources

Despite its modest size, Belgium has become the hub of terrorism in Europe. Its extremism is heavily concentrated in the Brussels district of Molenbeek, where Salah Abdeslam, the last of the Paris assailants, was recently captured. Per-capita, Belgium is the EU’s largest contributor of foreign fighters to the Islamic State. Returning fighters often play a critical role in ISIS attacks. According to a December 2015 estimate from the U.S.-based Soufan Group, as many as 470 Belgians left for the Middle East and 120 have returned out of a total of 5,000 Europeans that have joined ISIS.

A week before the Brussels attacks, one Belgian counterterrorism official told BuzzFeed News, “We just don’t have the people to watch anything else and, frankly, we don’t have the infrastructure to properly investigate or monitor hundreds of individuals suspected of terror links, as well as pursue the hundreds of open files and investigations we have.”

Organizational barriers also make it harder to employ resources effectively. “Brussels has six police forces,” writes the Washington Post, “each answering to a different mayor. Information is not always shared between the agencies, making it easy for leads to fall through the cracks.”

Costly Mistakes

Errors at critical moments have compromised even the most important Belgian counterterrorism efforts. For instance, authorities received a tip in December as to the whereabouts of Salah Abdeslam, yet they failed to bring him into custody until March 19, because the tip had not been passed up the chain of command.  In addition, Belgium’s penal code, which prohibits police raids between 9pm and 5am, likely allowed Abdeslam to escape apprehension shortly after the Paris attacks in November. 

After taking Abdeslam into custody, Belgian authorities failed to press him for information.  According to Politico, “Belgian law enforcement officials questioned terror suspect Salah Abdeslam for about one hour between the time of his arrest [on March 18] and the Brussels attacks” four days later. Ostensibly, this was due to his recovery from surgery after being shot in the leg, “despite the discovery of detonators, weapons, and Abdeslam’s fingerprints in a safe house days earlier.” During the brief interrogation, investigators did not even ask about future attacks, focusing instead on the earlier attacks in Paris.

In another telling lapse, Belgium apparently failed to respond to a notification from Turkey in June 2015 that it had stopped Brahim el-Bakraoui at the Syrian border. Suspected of being a foreign fighter, Turkish authorities deported el-Bakraoui to the Netherlands in July and claim to have notified the Belgians of the threat. Last week, el-Bakraoui and his brother Khalid detonated their suicide vests at the Brussels airport.

Depressingly, the Belgian situation may not be unique in Europe.  Despite a series of large scale attacks since September 11—including the 2004 Madrid attacks, 2005 London attacks, and last year’s Paris attacks—European political leaders still have not taken the actions necessary to ensure that police, intelligence, and custom agencies are able to exchange information. As the E.U. counterterrorism coordinator, Gilles de Kerchove, reported this month, “information sharing still does not reflect the threat,” and that “further urgent improvements to information sharing and border security are necessary.”  In specific, his report warns that several countries had not fully set up a common database for DNA, fingerprints, and car license plates for potential terror suspects, while also failing to plug into a database of convictions and ongoing prosecutions of suspected extremists. 

Further Attacks Probable

An assessment by the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) concludes that “ISIS will likely continue to attempt attacks in France and Belgium,” as part of its “long-standing strategy to punish, destabilize, and polarize the West.” In addition, “ISIS’s support networks in southern Europe may enable ISIS’s operatives to launch operations in other parts of the continent, including Austria, Germany, Spain, and Italy.” Thus, for Belgium and its neighbors, there remains an imperative to reform and strengthen the agencies responsible for counterterrorism operations.

Yet while sound defensive measures are essential, they cannot eliminate the threat at its source. As ISW observes, “ISIS’s safe haven within Iraq, Syria, and now Libya will continue to provide the logistical infrastructure necessary to train, resource, and direct attack cells in Europe.”

So far, the Obama administration’s campaign against ISIS safe havens has consisted all too often of half-measures and indecision. The European contribution to military operations has been similarly underwhelming. The attack on Brussels should remind them both that this war cannot be won by defense alone.

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