Ex-Counterterrorism Chief: Belgium Needs Urgent Help From Europe

Belgium Brussels Attacks Europe EU
Belgian troops man a roadblock near Brussels' Zaventem airport following Tuesdays' bomb attacks in Brussels, Belgium, March 23, 2016. Reuters/Charles Platiau

The European Union must do more to help Belgium's security services, a British counter terrorism expert tells Newsweek, in the wake of the co-ordinated suicide bomb attacks which struck the nation's capital on Tuesday.

The Islamic State militant group (ISIS) has claimed responsibility for the attacks, which left at least 31 people dead and many more wounded. The tragic events occurred after a four-month manhunt for the lone surviving Paris attacker Salah Abdeslam, resulted in his capture on Friday, leading experts to suspect that the Brussels plot was accelerated to prevent the capture of those behind it.

Belgian authorities had uncovered Abdelsam's extensive jihadi network at the heart of the European Union but were unable to prevent the coordinated strikes on the city's international airport and Maelbeek metro station. Experts say the Belgian security services are overwhelmed by the jihadi threat in the country, with some 400 counter-extremism agents tasked with monitoring thousands of jihadi suspects.

Alexander Carlile, who acted as the UK's Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation from 2001 to 2011 after 9/11, says that the EU must reevaluate its approach to sharing intelligence in the aftermath of the Brussels attacks.

"One of the strongest reasons for the existence of the European Union is increasing cooperation to ensure that there is peace in Europe," he says. "I think the Council of Ministers [which represents the executive governments of the EU member states] should sit down in the aftermath of the events in Paris on November 13 and in Brussels on March 22, to decide how they can improve the sharing of information."

While the French and Belgian authorities have been cooperating closely after the Paris attacks, the relationship has been fraught because of the failure of both parties to respect the sensitivity of the other's investigations in several cases.

The failure to prevent Tuesday's attacks will lead to soul-searching within the EU about how the member states can work more closely to prevent further atrocities and act to stop the spread of radical Islamism in the country, a threat that has been well-known by intelligence agencies for at least a year, security experts told Newsweek on Tuesday. In Europe, Belgium has the most jihadis per capita (40) that have traveled to Syria and Iraq to join radical Islamist militant groups.

"Brussels has been particularly vulnerable to infiltration by violent jihadists in recent years," he says. "I think we should be giving the Belgians all the help they need, and plainly they need some, in dealing with improving their techniques against terrorism, which may include the number of people they employ."

The cross-border European crime agency, Europol, does much to tackle the threat of radical Islamists on the continent. Bilateral intelligence-sharing agreements do exist, such as the one between France and Britain, but these are not capable of monitoring the threat of every jihadi across the continent. "Europol in fact has done quite a good job but it cannot act as a clearinghouse for all the intelligence that passes through Europe in relation to violent jihad,"says Carlile.

The solution is not as simple as just boosting the number of Belgian counter-terrorism agents. Instead, time needs to be spent training those agents, as well as bolstering the tools they have to tackle the threat posed by radical Islamists. The Belgian authorities intercepted and prevented two major ISIS-inspired plots in 2015 but the threat became too much after the capture of Abdeslam possibly activated a sleeping cell in the Belgian capital. Carlile says that all aspects of the Belgian security apparatus—technical, legal and financial—must now be examined.

"Simply increasing the number of agents does not protect a country against terrorism. It may be that their trade craft needs to be examined because that is very important...It's not just efficiency, it's the resources they have. Do they have the best technical resources? Is the law in Belgium sufficient to enable them to carry out appropriate inquiries including surveillance against terrorists? This is something that we must enquire into," he says.

Asked if member states would be unwilling to thin their domestic resources to assist other, less-equipped EU nations, Carlile says that they should be "ashamed of themselves" if they do not offer vital assistance. "The more we help one another, the better use we are able to make of our own resources," he says.

"If we give a piece of information to Belgium that helps them to interdict a potential terrorist plot or vice versa, then in terms of cost benefit analysis, it is tremendously beneficial. The cost to a national exchequer of an event like 7/7 or November 13 is huge, it's probably measured in the end in billions of Euros."