Can Europe Connect the ISIS Dots?
The Brussels attacks expose yet again the bureaucratic walls that prevent European agencies from sharing intelligence on terror threats.
In a 72-hour surge, authorities in France, Belgium, and Germany carried out a series of raids and arrests aimed at stopping what officials called an imminent terrorist attack in Paris and rolling up a terror cell suspected of orchestrating carnage in Paris and Brussels.
With each passing day, European investigators are discovering new nodes of a terror network with links to the Islamic State and determined to sow bloodshed in Europe. But that network has exploited Europe’s open borders and taken advantage of the bureaucratic divisions plaguing the various spy and police agencies trying to track them down.
In France, domestic intelligence officers stormed an an apartment late Thursday in the northern Paris suburb of Argenteuil and arrested a man suspected of plotting an attack in the capital that was “at an advanced stage.” In Belgium, police shot and arrested a suspect Friday they believe was linked to the attacks this week in Brussels that left 31 dead. And in Germany, police detained two men, including a Moroccan at a train station Wednesday in Giessen whose text messages possibly tied him to the extremists who staged the Brussels bombings.
The fast-moving police operations in three countries this week, as well as a manhunt across the continent for more suspects, illustrated the crucial need for European intelligence and law enforcement to swiftly pool information to keep pace with a morphing terrorist web that moves within isolated Muslim communities.
But that level of cooperation and coordination has often been sorely lacking when it comes to counterterrorism efforts in the European Union, despite a series of attacks over the past 15 years.
This week, Turkish authorities said they detained and deported Ibrahim el-Bakraoui — one of two suicide bombers who struck the Brussels airport — to the Netherlands last year. Turkish authorities believed Bakraoui intended to travel to, and fight in, Syria’s civil war, and informed Belgian authorities of their suspicions. Belgian police failed to act on those reports — even though El Bakraoui and his brother, Khalid, had long criminal records. Khalid el-Bakraoui blew himself up at a Brussels metro station Tuesday.
Before their terrorist careers, the Bakraoui brothers served stints in prison for violent crimes. Khalid el-Bakraoui had been imprisoned for carjacking. Ibrahim el-Bakraoui was jailed for firing at police officers during a robbery gone wrong. Belgian authorities apparently never detected their turn from gangsterism to terrorism, despite receiving the important Turkish tip.
“Their security and intelligence and law enforcement services are siloed,” said Sen. Angus King (I-Maine), who met with security officials in Paris and Berlin this week as part of a delegation from the Senate Intelligence Committee.
King told Foreign Policy that he came away concerned that turf rivalries and politics prevent the flow of information not only among the 28 member states of the European Union, but even within countries — as was the case between the CIA and FBI before the Sept. 11 attacks. “Ironically, Brussels doesn’t even share within the country,” he said, adding, “The Europeans are where we were pre-911.”
European political leaders have warned about the problem repeatedly. After the 2004 bombings in Madrid that killed 192 people, after the July 7, 2005, attacks in London that killed 52, and after the onslaught in Paris last November that left 130 dead, officials have urged decisive action to ensure police, intelligence, and customs agencies exchange information to stay ahead of the Islamist extremists.
But while there have been reforms and some limited progress, the gaps in intelligence remain.
“I don’t think it’s a new problem,” said Eric Rosand, a former senior State Department official who specialized in counterterrorism. “But the European Union is a slow-moving institution.”
The EU created the position of counterterrorism coordinator after the 2004 attacks in Madrid. But the coordinator’s office “doesn’t have any authority,” Rosand said. “He has a grand title and he produces wonderful reports. But he has a limited mandate and no resources.”
The coordinator, Gilles de Kerchove, issued a report this month warning that information-sharing among European governments still does not reflect the gravity of the threat and that “further urgent improvements to information sharing and border security are necessary.”
The report said several countries were still not fully “operational” with a common database for DNA, fingerprints, and car license plates for potential terror suspects. Several governments also have failed to plug into a database of convictions and ongoing prosecutions of suspected extremists. And not all member states have set up a connection to an electronic Interpol database for the EU’s external border crossings, it said.
Apart from bureaucratic barriers, concerns about privacy rights have complicated attempts to gather more intelligence on suspected militants, with protracted debates among EU members on proposed reforms. It was not until November’s deadly attacks in Paris that Belgium scrapped a law that prevented police from conducting nighttime searches of homes.
Current and former U.S. government officials also said the United States has long been frustrated with Europe’s slow-moving efforts to bolster the sharing of data on airline passengers. “That probably wouldn’t have prevented this attack per se, but this will continue to happen in the future if European countries can’t share full passenger data with each other,” said another former State Department official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
After a debate dating back to 2011, EU interior ministers in December finally agreed to a passenger data base for flights to and within Europe, and the deal is due to be formally adopted by the European Parliament this year.
While European agencies move toward greater cooperation and tougher measures to counter terrorist threats, some rights advocates have voiced worries that France, which has imposed an extended state of emergency since the November attacks, and some other governments are running roughshod over civil liberties. “There is a risk of over-reacting,” Rosand said.
Now, as European officials are scrambling to contain a network of operatives far larger and far more competent than many analysts had anticipated, police are encountering more familiar figures.
Reda Kriket, the 34-year-old arrested Thursday north of Paris, was convicted in absentia by a Belgian court in July for his role in helping Europeans travel to Syia to wage violent jihad. Authorities found weapons and explosives in the apartment where Kriket was staying, and had reportedly kept him under surveillance for several weeks. French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said Kriket was on the verge of carrying out a terror attack.
Kriket has deep ties to the Islamic State-linked terror network responsible for the attacks in Brussels and Paris. At his trial in absentia in Belgium, Kriket was sentenced to 10 years in prison. Among the other defendants being tried in absentia at that trial was Abdelhamid Abaaoud, who was handed 20 years in jail for his role in funneling fighters to Syria. Abaaoud has been described as the ringleader of the Paris attackers last November and was killed several days after in a shootout with French police in the Paris suburb of St. Denis.
On Friday, Belgian prosecutors confirmed what Foreign Policy and other media outlets have described as the key link between the Brussels and Paris attacks. In a statement, prosecutors said Najim Laachraoui, who was responsible for making suicide vests used in the Paris attacks, blew himself up at the Brussels airport Tuesday.
According to Philippe Hayez, a former official at the DGSE, the French foreign intelligence agency, the problem for European states lies in “integrating” the intelligence available to their many law enforcement and spy bodies. Different European security services have different “levels of ability,” he said, and struggle to understand what is happening in marginalized immigrant communities.
Hayez describes recent attacks in Paris and Brussels as a “new wave of Euro-terrorism,” not unlike what the continent faced in the 1970s from radical left-wing groups such as the Baader-Meinhof gang in Germany and the Red Brigades in Italy, or the attacks in France during the 1990s tied to the Algerian civil war. “It is not just a problem of fighting a distant enemy,” he said, referring to the Islamic State’s stronghold in Syria. “The enemy is not only abroad but also inside.”
But unlike previous eras, national borders across the continent are now wide open, and the volunteers joining up with Islamist extremists are drawn from Muslim neighborhoods that are often isolated from the rest of society. While Belgium has emerged as a hot spot of Islamic State recruitment — the country has sent the most foreign fighters per capita to Syria of any country in the EU — other European countries share a similar challenge trying to gather information on terror suspects and to prevent more young men from signing up, experts said.
Local police have only recently started to reach out to Muslim neighborhoods in Belgium and some other European cities to try to forge relationships and build trust with parents, community leaders, and imams. And most governments have yet to invest the resources necessary to address the problem.
“The thing that’s going to be a lot harder to do is to integrate communities that are not at all integrated,” Matthew Levitt, a former counterterrorism official at the Treasury Department, said at a conference Friday organized by the Washington Institute.
Many of the volunteers in the Islamic State network are not devout Muslims recruited at a mosque, but petty criminals and high school dropouts who are looking for a purpose, belonging, and notoriety to “go from zero to hero,” he said. “The speed of radicalization has been at hyper-speed.”
FP reporters Molly O’Toole and John Hudson contributed to this report
Photo credit: LAURIE DIEFFEMBACQ/AFP/Getty Images
Dan De Luce is Foreign Policy’s chief national security correspondent. @dandeluce