Saturday, March 26, 2016

Terror Attacks in Brussels - A Deep-rooted Malaise

Four days after one of Europe’s most wanted terror suspects - Salah Abdeslam, the only surviving terrorist of the November 13 attacks in Paris - was captured in a joint French-Belgian police operation in Brussels, multiple bomb attacks left the Belgian capital reeling.

Two blasts, minutes apart, tore through the departures area of Zaventem airport — the main Brussels airport — shortly after 8 a.m. local time. 

 Within an hour, an explosion hit a train near Maalbeek metro station, close to the EU institutions and around 350 meters from where European leaders hold their summits. 

 Belgian authorities confirmed one explosion at the airport was caused by a suicide bomber. A second was caused by a bomb detonated from a distance.

Two blasts targeted the main hall of Zaventem Airport at around 8:00am (0700 GMT), with prosecutor Frederic Van Leeuw saying the assault likely involved at least one suicide bomber. 

A third hit Maalbeek metro station near the European Union's main buildings, just as commuters were making their way to work in rush hour.

"A man shouted a few words in Arabic and then I heard a huge blast," airport baggage security officer Alphonse Lyoura told AFP, his hands bloodied.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for Tuesday's attacks, and Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel said there was no immediate evidence linking key Paris suspect Salah Abdeslam to them. After his arrest Abdeslam told authorities that he had created a new network and was planning new attacks.

The capture of Abdeslam in Belgium was hailed as a breakthrough in the police investigation into the November 13 terrorist attacks in Paris. However, there was no let up in the hunt for other accomplices of Abdeslam who were identified as Mohamed Abrini, a 30-year-old of Moroccan origin and 24-year-old Najim Laachraoui who had travelled to Syria in 2013. According to investigators, Laachraoui had been using the false name of Soufiane Kayal - the name with which he rented an apartment in Auvelais in Belgium and from where the terror attacks were planned. Laachraoui also went under the same false name when he crossed the border between Austria and Hungary on September 9th when he was travelling with Abdeslam and Mohamed Belkaïd, a third terror suspect who was killed in a shoot-out with police in Belgium last Tuesday.

There is bewilderment about the choice of Belgium as a target of ISIS latest attack. Apart from the fact it houses the headquarters of NATO and EU it is not a frontline military power; on the contrary it is the logistical hub of the Islamic State and serves as a launch pad from where IS could carry out its strikes throughout the European continent. While it may not be possible to know why IS targeted Brussels the following factors made Brussels vulnerable to a terror strike.

Belgium’s Complex Polity
Belgium has the trappings of western political structures, but in practice those structures are defective and have long been so. The academics Kris Deschouwer and Lieven De Winter gave an authoritative account of the development of political corruption and clientelism in an essay published in 1998. Almost from the beginning, they explain, the state suffered problems of political legitimacy.

Belgium came late, by western European standards, to statehood. In Belgium there were already existing allegiances to the locality, and although Belgium’s liberal elite threw off Dutch rule in 1830, it could neither uproot nor supplant these attachments to the local community, often intertwined with the Roman Catholic Church. So the formal structure of a Belgian state was erected but framing within it the cultural, social and welfare structures of the Church’s state within a state. Ranged against the Christian Democrats and the socialists were the anti-clerical and middle-class liberals, who constituted the third corner in Belgium’s political triangle. They did not have the same popular support, or the equivalent social structures. That was followed in due course by the development of a socialist/labor movement with its rival structures for mutual assurance, cultural associations. Ranged against the Christian Democrats and the socialists were the anti-clerical and middle-class liberals, who constituted the third corner in Belgium’s political triangle. They did not have the same popular support, or the equivalent social structures.

Eventually, the formal state developed its own services in areas like education, health care and other expressions of a welfare state, but it was obliged to do so respecting (and indeed using) the structures of the political parties. 

Administrations were divided by their political allegiances. Politicians were masters of patronage, with jobs and money at their disposal, and, as a consequence, public service suffered.

Although attempts at reforms were made, in many cases those reforms were not deep-rooted, but involved formalizing the division of spoils, for instance, to allocate control of certain jobs between different political parties.

Belgium’s unique geographical and linguistic status

Belgium is a small country of about11 million people which is divided by language and culture. Slightly more than half of Belgium's population is Flemish. They speak Dutch and live in the north, in Flanders. Less than half are French and live in the southern region of Wallonia. The framework of the Belgium government and the fact that the country's security and intelligence agencies are divided internally makes it relatively easier for these kinds of attacks to happen.

The country at every level and almost every public service -- schools, hospitals, even policing -- is split along linguistic lines. There are French schools and Flemish schools, French hospitals and Flemish hospitals.

Brussels is the capital of Belgium and Flanders, but Brussels is French-speaking.

Lack of intelligence sharing and poor co-ordination internally and within the EU

At least one of the attackers Brahim (or Ibrahim) el-Bakroui was deported by Turkey to the Netherlands in 2015 with a clear indication that he was a jihadist. Yet no action seems to have been taken either by the Dutch or the Belgian authorities. There have been repeated calls for a pan-European intelligence agency that would effectively share information from different countries. Members of the European Parliament denounced, again, the lack of coordination.

According to experts, even within states, intelligence-gathering agencies – France alone has 33 of them – have trouble cooperating. 

"Is it not in the nature of intelligence agencies to keep the information for themselves?" asked Jean-Marie Delarue, who until recently headed the French agency that reviews surveillance requests from these intelligence services.

"Information is power," Delarue said in a recent interview. "In intelligence, one only has enemies, no friends."

Cross-border cooperation would probably have helped prevent Tuesday's attacks.

Europe has had a "counter-terrorism coordinator" for much of the last 10 years, but this fact-finding institution was dismissed as "weak" in a recent French parliamentary report and as "having no operational capacity to offer."

In the absence of an effective centralized European counter-terrorism agency, it is up to the member states to cooperate with one another. Yet they do so only haphazardly.
There are plenty of databases, for instance, but the information they contain is either incomplete or inaccessible, numerous officials complained.

A fundamental one that contains criminal suspects' surveillance records — the Schengen Information System, or SIS — is only weakly supported by most of the member countries. The French parliamentary report last month said the French internal intelligence agency "is the only one that regularly feeds this database" and criticized "the very spotty nature of the information furnished by" other European nations.

"There is nothing automatic about what goes into the SIS," said Francois Heisbourg, a French intelligence expert. He said a decade of European squabbling over the issue had still not resulted in the creation of a minimal tool, the Passenger Name Record, of airplane travelers.

It is not just the main SIS database that is woefully lacking.

Some 5,000 EU citizens are known to have traveled to Iraq and Syria to join the Islamic State and other groups. Yet the Europol database "contains only 2,786 verified foreign terrorist fighters entered by EU member states," the counter-terrorism coordinator pointed out in a recent report.

"I think the biggest problem lies in the different levels of professionalism among the security services in Europe," according to Guido Steinberg, of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs.

The French parliamentary report ruefully acknowledged, without citing a specific assault, systematic "gaps in the transmission of information, which, if they had been realized in time, could have forestalled the attack" in Paris.

The cross-border cooperation failures in the case of the November Paris attacks are a telling case study. Belgium was unable to apprehend Salah Abdeslam, the Belgian-born French citizen of Moroccan descent, one of the key plotters of the Paris attacks swiftly considering the fact that he was stopped the morning after the attack near the Belgian border but was not detained. 

Geographical proximity
Brussels' proximity to major European cities and historic lack of internal cohesion makes it simpler for jihadists to move about without much impediment. Brussels, the capital of the European Union, is just a short drive away from a host of major cities: Paris, Amsterdam, Cologne, Strasbourg, Frankfurt and Berlin can be reached within a matter of few hours by road or rail.

Belgium’s  Jihadi link
Many extremists in Belgium have been inspired by the once-powerful radical group Sharia4Belgium, which targeted vulnerable and disenfranchised communities marred by rampant crime and unemployment.

The group gained prominence in 2010 and was disbanded five years later after a trial that resulted in its designation as a terror organization. [Sharia4Belgium was a Belgian radical Salafist organisation which called for Belgium to convert itself into an Islamist state. In February 2015 the group was designated a terrorist organization by a Belgian judge, and its spokesman, Fouad Belkacem, was sentenced to 12 years in prison].

Today, Belgium has the highest per capita of foreign fighters of any Western European country. Of the 5000-6000 Europeans who fought in Syria up to 550 are reportedly Belgian nationals. 

Over the last two years there had been a Molenbeek link to almost all the terrorist incidents in Europe including the May 2014 shooting by Mehdi Nemmouche at the Jewish museum in Brussels, Charlie Hebdo attack (January 2015), the failed attack by Ayoub el-Khazzani in August 2015 on a Thalys train. Salah Abdeslam, one of the key plotters of the Paris attack was arrested from Molenbeek a few days ago. Thus all the perpetrators of the myriad terror attacks had ties to Molenbeek.  

The inability of Belgian security services to control the flow of fighters traveling to Syria/Iraq to fight alongside IS, and -- perhaps more worryingly -- their failure to track them on return, only indicates that many jihadists have gone unnoticed. Authorities in several neighboring countries believe other attacks are likely. The European Union needs to have re-look at the migration policy and Schengen regime and to have in place an intelligence coordination committee for dissemination of intelligence inputs to thwart attacks in future.

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