One Belgian counterterrorism official told BuzzFeed News last week that due to the small size of the Belgian government and the huge numbers of open investigations -- into Belgian citizens suspected of either joining ISIS, being part of radical groups in Belgium, and the ongoing investigations into last November’s attacks in Paris, which appeared to be at least partially planned in Brussels and saw the participation of several Belgian citizens and residents -- virtually every police detective and military intelligence officer in the country was focused on international jihadi investigations.So maybe right-wingers are wrong to insist that we Westerners simply can't allow Muslims to live among us. Maybe the problem is just to put more resources into identifying the truly bad guys and preventing them from launching attacks. As NBC's Josh Meyer notes, terrorism experts think the most recent attack ought to have been prevented:
“We just don’t have the people to watch anything else and, frankly, we don’t have the infrastructure to properly investigate or monitor hundreds of individuals suspected of terror links, as well as pursue the hundreds of open files and investigations we have,” the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media, said.
“It’s literally an impossible situation and, honestly, it’s very grave.”
Current and former U.S. and European counter-terrorism officials, who are experts on ISIS in Europe, told NBC News that the location and timing of the attacks -- just days after the capture of the suspected operational leader of the Bataclan massacre in Paris -- suggested a "shocking" level of unpreparedness by Belgian authorities....Belgium is the center of radicalization in Europe in large part because its government is a mess:
Clint Watts, a former FBI and U.S. Army counter-terrorism official and expert on how ISIS operates, told NBC News that Belgian authorities should have been more prepared for Tuesday's attacks.
"That they could sit for four months, not only in Belgium but in Brussels and especially in Maelbeek, and plot these kinds of attacks just four days after the arrest of such a high-level network facilitator -- this is shocking to me because they should have been on the highest level of alert," Watts told NBC News....
"After the Paris attacks, it was a question of not being able to run all the leads down," Watts said. After Tuesday, "It's no longer a capacity problem, it's a competency problem."
Brussels is home to 19 different municipalities, two intelligence agencies, and six police zones in a city home to only around 1 million people....And as Britain's Telegraph noted in the aftermath of the recent Paris attacks, Belgian law enforcement isn't just fragmented, it's stretched thin:
Much of the country is also divided into French, German and Dutch speakers, and information gets lost in the haze of linguistic and bureaucratic boundaries.
Eddy Lebon, of the police union Sypol, told La Libre that the Belgian forensics service is "anaemic". Laboratories are being cut from 23 to 14, and may go down to 5. "They don't have the white powder to reveal fingerprints at the scene of a crime."But it's not just Belgium, as The New York Times reminded us a few days ago:
"Last fall, we stopped the recruitment of 600 police officers, 15 days short of their entry to the academy. If this absurd economy had not happened, today they would be entering service..."
"I could tell you about our cars that have 230,000 kilometres on the clock and tremble above 80 kilometres an hour, but I prefer to discuss our IT issues, the obsolete equipment we use for wiretaps and the state of our weapons."
Vincent Gilles, president of the SLFP Police union, said: "In the federal police, there is not enough money to buy new trousers for police officers, and young recruits make do with old overalls. Some teams are armed with 20 year-old rifles, with too few to go around, not to mention the lack of body armour."
The attackers in Paris appear to have moved easily between Belgium and France, and in some cases between the Middle East and Europe. At least three were wanted on international arrest warrants before the attacks but were able to travel freely. And security services are constrained by the inability or unwillingness of [European] countries to share intelligence about potential terrorists, for legal, practical and territorial reasons.It's true that names originating in languages that don't use our alphabet aren't transliterated the same way in every European language. But how is this an unsolvable problem? How hard is it to devise a means of searching the data that takes account of known variations and flags possible matches that aren't exact? I'm constantly entering search terms with typos into Google, and Google usually finds what I meant to type. Don't we know how to deal with this sort of thing? Don't European authorities need to improve in this area, given the fact that it's literally a matter of life and death?
“We don’t share information,” said Alain Chouet, a former head of French intelligence. “We even didn’t agree on the translations of people’s names that are in Arabic or Cyrillic, so if someone comes into Europe through Estonia or Denmark, maybe that’s not how we register them in France or Spain.”
American right-wingers think the attacks we've seen recently in Europe will inevitably come to America with the same frequency and force. But maybe not. Maybe we've put more resources into dealing with this threat. Maybe we're being misled by the conservative prophets of doom, who almost seem to want frequent large attacks here, to validate their own paranoia and rage. Perhaps the terrorists don't have superpowers after all.
UPDATE: At Politico, Daniel Benjamin, a former State Department coordinator for counterterrorism, addresses this question with more expertise than I can bring to it, and comes to very similar conclusions. Worth a read.