Belgian Federal Police Chief Braces for New ISIS Terror Attacks

Belgian soldiers patrol Zaventem International Airport near Brussels on November 21, 2015, after security was tightened in Belgium following the fatal attacks in Paris. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir

Updated | Catherine De Bolle is waiting, and she is worried. Even before U.S. warnings of a "heightened risk of terrorist attacks" in Europe during the holiday season, the head of Belgium's Federal Police was bracing for a new wave of assaults in or around Brussels. The city's immigrant Muslim neighborhoods were staging grounds for last November's attacks in Paris, which killed 130 people and wounded nearly 500, as well as suicide bombings in March at Brussels Airport and a downtown metro station, which killed 32 and wounded 300 more.

More than eight months after that last attack, Brussels authorities have girded the city with new security measures, starting with heavily armed soldiers guarding the airport—still under repair from the March attack—as well as European Union buildings and the embassies of NATO countries battling the Islamic State militant group (ISIS) in Syria and Iraq. Combat-ready soldiers patrol the city's central train station and even the narrow winding streets of its quaint, 19th-century shopping and dining districts. Green army trucks and personnel carriers are a constant presence outside the elegant Hilton Brussels Grand Place hotel. New surveillance cameras are ubiquitous, recording faces and license plates, officials say.

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De Bolle
Catherine De Bolle, head of the Belgian federal police, addresses a news conference in Brussels on September 20, 2012. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir

"People are used to seeing more security on the streets now," Peter Mertens, spokesman for the Brussels all-agency Crisis Center, tells Newsweek. "It wasn't that way a year ago." But if should have been, critics say. Belgium is "a central hub for ISIS," Sajjan Gohel, international security director for the Asia-Pacific Foundation think tank, told CNN after the Brussels attacks. Now Europe is under full assault by ISIS-inspired or -directed attacks, a number of them connected to Belgium-based militants. With 129 dead and almost 550 wounded already in Western Europe so far in 2016, the level of carnage is expected to surpass 2015's horrific numbers. "The Belgian authorities did not take Sharia4Belgium [a radical Salfist group founded in 2010] seriously until it was too late," added CNN's Tim Lister. "The damage had been done." It wasn't shuttered until last year.

De Bolle, 46, the lone female national police chief in Europe, is expecting trouble from ISIS militants returning to Belgium because of the deteriorating conditions around Mosul, its key stronghold in Iraq, as well as Raqqa, Syria, the group's main stronghold. "In the first six months of this year, we have already arrested 163 people who are now in prison, so this means we still have a problem," she said during an exclusive Newsweek interview in her Brussels office. "A lot of people have come back, or will come back, their women will come back, their children will come back. How will we deal with this? What will they do when they come back? Will they be reintegrated?"

It's not just a police problem, she says, but a challenge for Belgium's social agencies and schools. Already, housing inspectors have ramped up efforts to ascertain who is living where, whether a house or apartment has ghost tenants who could be fighting with ISIS while relatives cash their welfare checks.

A soft-spoken mother of three, De Bolle projects the calm authority expected of a major police agency chief. But like her counterparts in Europe and America, she cannot hide her anxiety about what may be coming. According to a report last year by the private intelligence firm the Soufan Group, Belgium has produced more foreign fighters per capita for ISIS—and militant returnees—than any other country in the world. Six months ago, Belgium's interior minister said there may be as many as 100 battle-tested jihadis plotting attacks in the country.

De Bolle insists Belgium is better equipped to prevent and respond to terrorism than it was last year, when critics acidly mocked the splintered nation's governing structure, a byzantine system that apportions authority among federal authorities and local officials in the Flemish-speaking north and the French-speaking south, who barely get along. Meanwhile, the largely North African immigrant communities of Molenbeek and Schaerbeek have turned into incubators for ISIS recruits.

De Bolle credits a January 2015 police raid on a hideout in Verviers, in eastern Belgium, for getting Brussels to do more about its homegrown threat. Police confiscated four Kalashnikov assault rifles, bomb-making equipment and police clothing in the raid, which ended with two militants dead and another captured. "Things went much faster" after that, De Bolle says, with top ministries agreeing in principle on new law enforcement and social-agency remedies to mitigate the danger from Belgium-born ISIS fighters. "I am convinced we are doing everything we can to keep us more safe," she says. "We have developed policies to integrate the different services—the secret services, the intelligence service, the army, the center responsible for analyzing threats to the region. Everybody is more educated on the global approach of radicalism and terrorism."

A top Belgian counterterrorism official, however, called such measures "cosmetic." At the same time, he added, police now treat every Arab petty criminal as a potential ISIS threat, which has put an additional burden on police resources. "We have hundreds of people to put under surveillance," he said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject. "It's impossible."

De Bolle granted that new security measures have vastly increased the number of suspects police are tracking. "We have a dynamic database where we put in all the people suspected of potential terrorism," she says. "This is a new law. We wanted to do it before, but because of the [2016] attacks it has gone much better and faster."

De Bolle, who is the first Belgian to represent Europe on Interpol's Executive Committee, says tightening border controls on the continent "is the first priority." But there's little evidence much progress has been made on that. Europe's porous borders, especially in the east, have enabled Belgian and French ISIS fighters to return home and plot attacks, the latest of which was uncovered November 20 when French police raids in Strasbourg, on the German border, and in Marseilles, disrupted what France's interior minister called "a coordinated attack aimed to hit several sites simultaneously" in Paris. Four of the five suspects are French nationals of North African origin, authorities said. The fifth is a Moroccan citizen who had been flagged by what French interior minister Bernard Cazeneuve called a "partner country." Authorities suspect the group is linked to Salah Abdeslam, a Belgian-born member, and sole survivor of the ISIS team that carried out the Paris and Brussels attacks.

Despite the gathering threat, Belgium's security ministries and Parliament are still debating minor changes in the law that police say they desperately need to cope with terrorism. Chief among them: a measure that would permit the Federal Police to hold a suspect more than 24 hours without charges. "It's too short," said De Bolle. "The problem for us is the electronic devices. We cannot exploit them in 24 hours." A single iPhone can hold thousands of contacts, plus telephone call records and photos, while a single raid may reap scores of devices. "There might be a plan for an attack in there," she adds, "but we need time to read it."

A judge can extend the hold time to 48 hours but only in exceptional cases. Parliament is debating whether to extend the search time to 72 hours—a contentious issue in a country where memories of the Nazi Gestapo infused Belgian laws with strict limitations on police. "I won't say we can solve this problem [of exploiting evidence] with [an extension to] 72 hours, but at least we will have more time," De Bolle says. Loosening restrictions on police is "the most important thing for us."

Another challenge: The Federal Police cannot use civilians as undercover agents. While detectives can pay for tips from informants, only sworn members of the force are authorized to go undercover with the goal of identifying a cell's members and leaders and disrupting its plots. That role is relegated to Belgium's civilian and military intelligence agencies.

Belgian soldiers and a police officer look at a woman's documents in a shopping street in central Brussels on November 21, 2015 after security was tightened in Belgium following the fatal attacks in Paris. REUTERS/Youssef Boudlal

Nor can De Bolle's agency expect much help by recruiting for police cadets in Belgium's restive North African immigrant communities. "We took action a few years ago to recruit people with a different cultural background," says De Bolle's counterterrorism chief, who spoke only on terms of anonymity because of the sensitivity of his job. But that turned out to be mostly useless, he adds. "We have seen time and time again that Arab police officers were not welcome in their communities."

Youth unemployment in the Muslim Molenbeek neighborhood is about 40 percent, its mayor told CNN after the Verviers raid last year. "Overall, Belgium scores very low on labor market integration of third-country nationals compared to other European countries," according to a 2012 study by the Washington, D.C.–based Migration Policy Institute. Belgium's generous unemployment benefits have also stifled the integration of Arabs into the labor market, the report said. Ask any Brussels taxi driver, most of whom appear to be Arab, and he will say that too many young Muslims face dead-end futures, making them ripe for ISIS recruiting videos.

In an interview last November, Claude Moniquet, a former intelligence agent and co-founder of the European Strategic Intelligence and Security Center, called Molenbeek "out of control."

"In some areas," De Bolle concedes, "you really do have the problem that there's no trust any more. In some communities, the second or third generation don't accept authority anymore, even from their parents or grandparents like they did before."

Police can't solve that problem, she says, echoing the pleas of her American counterparts. Parents, teachers and social workers have to take the lead in rooting out miscreants, identifying future troublemakers, and giving hope to young people who want to succeed.

That's a lot to do after years of pretending there wasn't a problem, De Bolle and other officials say. But further delay is unacceptable. The need for fixes is "really, really immediate," she says.

"It's everybody's responsibility, it's everybody's problem. Everybody must ask what we can do to save our society."

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Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of a town where Belgian police carried out a raid in 2015. It is Verviers, not Vervier.