Tuesday, March 22, 2016


When American conservatives want to assess blame for the rise of terrorism in the West, their preferred culprits are "multiculturalism" (by which they mean allowing any Muslims at all to live in majority-white countries) and liberalism (by which they President Obama). But as terrifying as stateside attacks have been, recently the problem of jihadist terrorism has been worse in parts of Europe -- with Belgium a particular epicenter. As BuzzFeed's Mitch Prothero notes, Belgian authorities seem completely overwhelmed:
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.

“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.”
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:
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....

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."
Belgium is the center of radicalization in Europe in large part because its government is a mess:
Brussels is home to 19 different municipalities, two intelligence agencies, and six police zones in a city home to only around 1 million people....

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.
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:
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."

"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."
But it's not just Belgium, as The New York Times reminded us a few days ago:
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.

“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.”
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?

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.


AllieG said...

Nobody notices because the country is white and well-off, but Belgium meets about 80 percent of the markers for a failed state.

Feud Turgidson said...

I don't know if something like that can be so fine-tuned, but in general I agree with AllieG's observation.

It'd take too long that this comment system allows for to explain all the history and dynamics that have contributed to this state of affairs, so here's few cheap shots.

Some great things about Belgium: beer (seriously: no one does beer better than Belgians), Jacques Brel (If you haven't seen him perform, go to YouTube and I'll just consider myself thanked.), Hercule Poirot (Okay, fictional, and by a Englander, but a GREAT fictional character, especially as portrayed by the great Shakespearean David Suchet, who's made a career banquet out of portraying the character), and football - as the REST of the world calls it: Belgium's national men's team is loaded with spectacular talent.

Okay, I confess: I'm 1/16th Flemish Belgique.

But just putting it that way captures a bit of the problem. If anyone here is new to this and wants to get caught up in a several thousand years of European history, IMO s good start is The 80 Years War - between the Spanish branch of the Hapsburgs as abusive franchisees of the Holy Roman Empire, and the post-Reformation Duchy of Orange. Fun bit: check out what they did to 'discipline' the guy who assassinated William of Orange: now THAT'S torture!

Belgium doesn't really exist in any coherent way, OTHER than some cultural features, which themselves are far from uniform. It's only survived in something like the nation-state form due to the forebearance of other Post WWII nation states. It's not so much a failed state as mostly no state at all. It LOOKS like modern western Europe, but government is a banana stand with a tips cup.

So, this is not easy to fix. The existing 'infrastructure' is basically there in the same way small family business are, and law enforcement is simply in the form of a spectrum of less overtly racist variations on Joe Arpaio, but without guns ... or the uniforms, the jails, the supplies, the investigative hardware and software, or software of almost any kind (Their intel is completely beholden to Interpol, who are mostly all outside Belgium and don't give a crap for the country's prospects - it's like, Europe is generally okay with immigrant dissidents using Belgium like al Qaeada use to use Afghanistan because NIMBY.

Finally, I continue to see this as a perverse sort of 'good news', that the ISIS-in-Europe little monsters are crapping in their own pajamas now, rather than in one of the states than actually generally functions as such. It suggests that whoever, maybe even to some limited credit to Belgian law enforcement, has managed to so seriously impair the normal freedom of movement and other logistics of the twisted little ISIS in Europe thugs that they're now basically reduced dropping bombs out their own apartment buildings. Note the attacks on the airport - I can almost guarantee that's because at least some of the little darlings have been unable to get thru security clearance. This is like if bin Laden had got ticked off with his own extended family and started attacking Bin Laden Construction Int'l.

So - maybe it also a little sign that the "incompetent" Belgian authorities are at least still more competent than their quarry. Goddammit, I hate security consultants trash talking like SEC fuhbow fayans.

Gerald Parks said...

Let's cut the BS ...It was GOP/Republican governance 2000 to 20008 that lied the American people into invading and utterly destroying Iraq ...period

This directly resulted to the destabilization of the entire Middle East, Northern Africa AND now because of the creation of ISIS and the refugees running from the GOP/Republican created crisis ...Europe!

Does the world .... let alone America .... want a continuation of GOP/Republican governance from the White House????


Frank Wilhoit said...

@Gerald Parks,

It is so much worse than you imagine. In 1911 Winston Churchill got a wild hair up his ass to convert the Royal Navy from coal to oil. This required...ah, how you say in Engleesh?...oil. Never one to shy away from repeating a mistake, in 1922 Churchill very literally took a ruler to a map and created the fictional entities that go by the names of "Iraq" and Syria"; plucked unknown, scruffy and illiterate nomadic tribesmen out of the desert and made them "kings" of the said same. Good outcomes were totally excluded. It all makes fun reading, tho'. Google "Fromkin peace" (NB. not Froomkin). Also look up John Arbuthnot Fisher, a character so bizarre that no novelist could ever have invented him. Material on T. E. Lawrence ("of Arabia") is easier to find.

...and all of this neglects the Balfour Declaration -- look up Arthur Balfour, the political analogue of Oscar Wilde.

Anyhow that part of the world got f\/cked up beyond any possible retrieval more than a century ago and we would up holding that bag, along with so many other bags, after WWII. 2003 was bad enough, but, in context, it was only another straw on the camel's already-broken back.

retiredeng said...

@Gerald Parks, @Frank Wilhoit (it's the friggin' oil)

Note how the Europeans have been freaking out about the current GOP primary and how another idiot war monger could win the White House.

The "don't know much about history" American public gets to make this decision. But the all too educated about history Europeans are terrified that it's about to be repeated.

The current problem stems from the history of the West electing short sighted nincompoops in thrall to big oil.

Arthur Mervyn said...

Belgium is a relatively small country, with a population of about 11 million according to Wikipedia. I imagine law enforcement is not the only aspect of government stretched thin. Should Belgium move a good chunk of its resources into investigating ISIS and neglect other parts of the government? Given the size of the country, I think there is only so much they can do--they're not the U.S. after all.

Steve M. said...

At this point, maybe the international community should deal with this via foreign aid, the way it might be done for a Third World country.

AllieG said...

The European Union obviously needs its own national police/security organization devoted to these matters. But most EU countries would resist that as strongly as possible.

paulocanning said...

There are north of 1000 Belgian Islamists known to authorities. It is simply impossible to track that number 24/7.

You should also know that in Europe, as in the US, post-Snowden, we are assailed by those attacking efforts to track these guys (and they are guys). We also have to deal with the regressive left, who attack any effort to tackle radicalisation and support progressive Muslims.

There is also no will whatsoever to attack the HQ of these people - in Syria.

So none of this superior pouting about 'failed Europe' thank you very much. Especially when the wins - like this one > https://twitter.com/pauloCanning/status/712713660037259265 - get zero attention.

Gadfly said...

Feud puts it well. When the post-1815 Kingdom of the Netherlands proved to not be totally viable, rather than creating the Kingdom of Belgium, the north/east parts of what became Belgium should have been kept with Holland, and revanchism fears aside, the south/west portions given to France. We still would have had a stronger Netherlands guarding France, and we also would have had no Heart of Darkness in the Belgian Congo and possibly no World War I.