If the president of another nation attached the label “suspected terrorist” to a man and shipped him your way, you might expect your local intelligence agencies to sit up and take notice.
But in Europe, where the continent’s intelligence agencies seem overly preoccupied with fending off rival snoops, no one seems to have paid much heed when, according to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey deported one of the Belgium-born suicide bombers who struck Belgium last week — Ibrahim El Bakraoui — back to Europe less than a year ago because he was a suspected terrorist. Bakraoui was thought to be a fighter on his way to joining the conflict in Syria.
Just how much did Turkey have to jump up and down to get someone to pay attention?
Turkey’s warning should have sent up red flags in intelligence agencies all over Europe. Except there are so many agencies that tell so little to each other that the terrorists were able to carry out their plot in Brussels even though similar attacks in Paris four months ago should have put everyone on alert.
Such intelligence failures have to change if European authorities want to forestall more attacks like the Brussels airport and subway bombings last week that killed 32 people, including three of the attackers, and injured about 270 more. And the United States should see Europe’s fumbles as a warning to ensure its own networks, though apparently doing better since the 9/11 attacks, are operating at a highly coordinated level.
Europe, divided by numerous languages and national borders, has structural challenges the United States does not. But its problems go deeper than that.
For example, France’s major intelligence and security agencies are separated into eight services that often fight intramural battles, which critics say means information is not shared as thoroughly as it should be. And compared with many other European nations, France, along with the United Kingdom and Germany, is a stalwart.
But in a continent with open borders, any nation can be the weak link that undermines security efforts for all. Some critics point their fingers at Belgium — where police raided Brussels neighborhoods Friday in operations said to be linked to last week’s bombings — as perhaps the weakest of the continent’s links. Experts interviewed by the Associated Press said Belgium has repeatedly come up short in its efforts to prevent extremist attacks by failing to coordinate intelligence, investigate suspects and control its borders.
Raffaello Pantucci, director of international security studies at the Royal United Services Institute in London, told the AP that Belgium has a worrisome mix of homegrown Muslim radicals with the tools needed to wreak havoc and overmatched government and law enforcement structures. Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution said Belgium often fails to balance the desire to investigate suspected criminal activity with the need to act promptly.
And French Finance Minister Michel Sapin on Tuesday accused Belgian officials of a “lack of will … maybe also a kind of naivete” in ignoring the reach of radical jihadism among the country’s 650,000 Muslims.
Belgium has a disjointed government and its population speaks several different languages. The Brussels area is divided into six police zones, and critics say the nation’s many police departments don’t speak to each other. Brussels’ Mollenbeek district is known to have been home to numerous jihadists.
Some efforts have been made to improve cooperation. Interpol is giving Belgium analytical and operational support. January saw the launch of the European Counter Terrorism Center, which will have 50 specialists to collecting and evaluating information about suspects. But individual nations already are being criticized for not using the new unit enough.
On Friday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said the United States and other countries had already scheduled meetings with Belgium prior to the attacks about how to make improvements. Among the issues to be discussed: new laws, better intelligence collection and ways to keep young people from becoming radicalized.
All of Europe should be following this example. The continent has a choice. Either it will find a way to cooperate as an open society to stop terror attacks — a highly functioning European Union not only economically but with respect to security — or it will find itself retrenching behind weak walls.
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