Many writers have said that the present Belgium attacks arose out of the November Paris incidents. This is obviously wrong.
Belgium has a long history of flirting with Jehadi terrorism. The latest “Foreign Affairs” (March 23) carries an article by Robin Simcox on some forgotten facts about Belgium which was a source of Jihadi terrorist activities even in the 1990s. During that era Algerian Islamic Group (GIA) was waging a civil war. Local Belgian criminals sent considerable arms and ammunition from Brussels to help them. Also, local residents went to join Islamic insurgencies including the Chechen Wars. He says that 20 Islamists were convicted in Belgium after 9/11 including Nizar Trabelsi, a former soccer player who had planned a suicide attack on a NATO base. It also included Tarek Maaroufi who was involved in the assassination of Afghan leader Ahmed Shah Massoud on the same day as 9/11. Belgium contributed nearly 553 rebels who went to fight the Syrian War out of a total strength of 5000-6000.
The recurrent theme in the world media after the Brussels attack is “failure of intelligence”. A renegade intelligence officer like Annie Machon who betrayed MI-5’s secret operations in 1996 as a “Whistle blower” is now being quoted by Indian media to claim that European intelligence organizations had failed by ignoring “more traditional aspects of intelligence work”. It is surprising how our media could consider an operative with just 6 year’s experience in their Irish Section to be an expert on the labyrinthine ways of Jehadi terrorism where we find that traditional intelligence has no capability of penetrating such cells.
It is however true that serious infirmities exist in the European system of intelligence processing which are not due to the reasons cited by people like Annie Machon. In fact these had come to light even in 2004 after the Madrid train bombing and the 2005 July London attacks. The first problem is the nature of Europe which has 48 countries. I have not included Russia, Turkey and Kazakhstan which are usually mentioned among 51 European countries. 28 countries are members of the European Union (EU) which is considered as one entity which, in theory, has common security and foreign policy. 25 of them use Euro currency while 26 members like France and Belgium are members of the Schengen Border free system.
No intelligence system can function effectively unless there is centralized control of its policy, resources and operations. Our Indian system of conferring legal powers to do counter-terrorist operations on 29 state police is far from perfect. But its deficiencies are partly compensated by the overarching presence of our Intelligence Bureau (IB), although it lacks legal power. IB has however been effectively coordinating counter-terrorist operations all over the country with legal support from our Ministry of Home Affairs which has the constitutional responsibility of protecting the states from disorder. Also, our foreign policy, which is a necessary ingredient in evolving an effective intelligence strategy, is centralized on foreign threats like the Islamic State.
That is not the case with Europe or EU. Each country has its distinct political philosophy and strategy. Each country arrives at different threat perceptions based on its own foreign and internal policies. Sometimes EU leadership takes a different stand than member countries. While France took active part in helping anti-Assad rebels and opposed Russian intervention, EU leadership took an ambivalent position on that issue, much to the chagrin of UK, France and USA. After 9/11 when US was trying to enlist the Counter-Terrorist (CT) cooperation of EU, one of the big problems they faced was dealing with “Islamic Charities”. They found it difficult to persuade European powers to ban the “Hamas” and “Hezbollah” charities on the ground that both were political parties which were elected by public polls.
After the March 2004 Madrid attacks, the EU appointed a Counter-Terrorism Coordinator. They published a counter-terrorism strategy (CT) on 30 November 2005 which was more or less a copy of the UK’s 4 “P”s: Prevent, Pursue, Protect & Prepare. EU adopted 3 “P”s (Prevent, Protect, Pursuit) and one “R” (Response). However a paper published in “Washington Quarterly” (Autumn 2006) said that EU’s CT coordinator had “Little power to compel coordination”. A German intelligence official told the Quarterly that the system was “too bureaucratic and fragmented across the borders”. The same opinion was voiced in a paper in “E-International Affairs” on August 22, 2013 although it took note of positive developments like evolving a common definition of terrorism and on European Arrest Warrant. But it complained that some measures were not adopted at the national level by member countries. “Long-standing bilateral and/or non-EU multilateral arrangements are still clearly preferred by EU Member States’ national agencies tasked with counterterrorism and a similar preference can often be traced at the political level”
The EUROPOL (European Police) could set up a European Counter-Terrorist Centre (ECTC) only in January 2016 after the November 2015 Paris attacks while the original American body (NCTC) and its UK Counter-part (Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre) were established in 2003. This would show the procedural difficulties in setting up such a body by an organization like EU which needs concurrence from member states. The “Unanimity Rule”, European emphasis on transparency and privacy and insistence on human rights make them go through all such measures with a fine toothed comb, delaying matters. For example the agreement with USA in 2009 to share air passenger data was criticized due to its “weak guarantees” on data protection. A paper prepared in November 2015 said that EUROPOL does not receive data on ongoing court procedures and convictions obtained by the Member States in terrorist cases. The same paper said that EUROPOL’s operational role has been limited, with low participation in joint investigation teams.
These are the difficulties faced in Europe which cannot transplant another national system like that of USA or UK without undermining their great achievement of being a vanguard of human rights and free movement of individuals and trade.
(PHOTOGRAPH: One of the most published photographs of the Brussels terror attack on the airport, two women survivors, one India’s Nidhi Chaphekar. Photograph was taken by Ketevan Kardava/Getty Images)