Beyond Brussels: Turning the Tide against ISIL in Europe


In a tragic example of foreshadowing, French Minister of the Interior Bernard Cazeneuve stated in remarks at the George Washington University earlier this month that the terrorist threat level had never been so high. Last week’s attacks in Brussels plainly reinforce the point while begging the question of how they were possible. The city is, after all, home to a throng of European Union entities and other international organizations such as NATO, which are not the softest possible targets. The latest attacks place at the top of the Belgian and European agendas the matter of how best to proceed. Clearly, the status quo isn’t working — and we say this with all due regard for the dedicated efforts of counterterrorism officials who have been applying themselves to an increasingly large and complex problem.

Consider the scale and scope of the challenge. From the French standpoint, according to the interior minister of that country, about 2,000 nationals are in Syria and Iraq. This represents an increase of more than 60 percent compared to 2015. About 300 of these individuals are back in France now, many with combat experience. As Clint Watts and others have noted, the phenomenon has manifested Europe-wide, with Western fighters returning to their countries of origin, “emboldened by the Islamic State’s well-rooted facilitation network.” Belgium, for its part, has the highest per capita number of foreign fighters of any country in Europe. And the Brussels bombings reflect the work of just one cell, yet there exist many others.

Whether loosely connected to or embedded more firmly within broader terrorist networks, each cell possesses its own expertise, ranging from making bombs to providing military training to producing fraudulent documents. These skillsets render even more ominous the news that the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) “has trained at least 400 fighters” to attack Europe “in waves.”

Yet it doesn’t take many people for terrorism to succeed, particularly when there is a mismatch between their intent to do harm and the capabilities and resources directed against them by law enforcement and intelligence agencies. In Molenbeek, Belgium, for instance, one of the Paris attackers of November 2015, Salah Abdeslam, managed to remain successfully in his old stomping grounds for months with help from “petty criminals,” hiding in plain sight, despite being one of the world’s most wanted. This came to pass despite the assistance Belgium received from others, including France and Britain.

Various explanations have been offered to account for Belgium’s conundrum. These range from broad factors such as history and politics, which have resulted in layer upon layer of bureaucracy and the fragmentation of authority along ethnic and linguistic lines, to highly tactical factors such as the presences of fewer closed-circuit television cameras in Brussels than in other capital cities. Yet in light of prevailing circumstances, other elements are almost impossible to comprehend, such as a prohibition on conducting police raids between the hours of 9 p.m. and 5 a.m.

Whether the present state of affairs is due to insufficient political will, capacity, or capability will undoubtedly continue to be debated. But the facts do indicate that by comparison to other E.U. Members, Belgium underspends on intelligence, both civilian and military, with consequent effects upon the country’s overseas collection capabilities. In addition, Belgium’s federal law enforcement architecture is weak. Indeed the country’s interior minister has conceded the point, acknowledging this underinvestment just days ago. As Watts put it at War on the Rocks, “Smaller countries have free ridden for years on the enforcement efforts of larger states.”

The upshot is that counterterrorism in Belgium is a highly local enterprise, where the mayor in essence calls the shots; and in Brussels alone there are 19 mayors. Complicating this already complex situation within national borders are the threat elements that intersect with and extend beyond them. After the Brussels attack, the investigation has sprawled from Belgium and France into Germany, the Netherlands, and Italy, with recent arrests of suspects in all of these countries.

To Americans, the situation is at least to some extent familiar, in the sense that our pre-9/11 posture featured walls and barriers to the kind of interagency and intergovernmental (federal-state-local) cooperation and collaboration needed to defeat a determined and networked adversary. Since then, the United States has come a long way in terms of sharing information and building a culture that supports this. Comparatively, as a supranational entity, the European Union lags significantly in this area — a shortcoming that is further magnified by the fractured and patchwork nature of Belgium’s own security and intelligence architectures. Add to that the fact that there is also in Belgium considerable overlap between terrorist and criminal activity, yet Belgian databases are not sufficiently cross-walked so as to allow the one to tip off the other. For our adversaries who operate transnationally across countries and through the Internet, it is an almost perfect storm.

Comparing Europe to the United States in this context is misleading, however, because the consensus view within the European Union is that primary responsibility for countering terrorism must remain with the member states. The challenge, therefore, is to mitigate the consequences of “the EU policy paradox” wherein national responses face transnational threats.

As such, the European Union is only as strong as the sum of its parts. While E.U.-level capacities may still be nascent in certain important areas, the flip side is that even where highly developed capabilities exist, their effectiveness may be tempered and blunted by the need to exercise them with due regard for the national sovereignty of all concerned. Put another way, Belgium’s problem ultimately requires a Belgian solution, albeit one that is supported and supplemented by efforts of the European Union, the United States, and other allied nations and organizations.

A good start would see the European Union improve its information sharing entity-wide in conjunction with Belgium increasing and intensifying its collection efforts. At the same time, the ideology that feeds the violent extremism of ISIL and likeminded groups must be confronted and pushed back, including in communities like Molenbeek, where it has been allowed to flourish and spread unfettered.

Collecting intelligence and countering ideology are, admittedly, activities that take time. Although their potential yield for counterterrorism purposes is beyond question, a more immediate (even if partial) fix is needed. An E.U.-wide platform that pools national investigatory resources, along the lines of the task force proposed by Watts earlier this week at War on the Rocks, could fit that bill. In doing so, it could help to further synchronize and synergize the various response and prevention initiatives of key actors.

The design of the European Union was in many ways driven by economic and trade considerations that favor open borders and minimally restricted mobility within the entity as a whole. If the European Union were redesigned from scratch in light of prevailing security circumstances, it would look very different. But we must take the world as we find it and the reality is that E.U. members have disparate capabilities when it comes to the security and intelligence arena. To help recalibrate that situation in response to current security imperatives, we propose the following short-term priority action plan, which seeks to build upon the European Counter Terrorism Center housed within Europol, as well as national sources of comparative advantage:

  • Pool national investigatory assets within a single European platform and dedicate these resources to identifying the perpetrators and facilitators of the Brussels bombings. This would include identifying crossovers and links with the Paris attackers. If ISIL is targeting Europe as a whole, countering their efforts along merely national lines is limiting and counterproductive. Certain E.U. countries possess more advanced security and intelligence capabilities, and now is the time to invoke them, such as within a dedicated task force, to help achieve a shared goal. The United States may also be able to support and assist this effort, and should do so either if called upon or if U.S. officials reach that conclusion independently. Achieving investigatory progress on the Brussels and Paris attacks using this type of construct could crystallize both the will and the resources necessary to engage more ambitiously, such as Watts proposes, to “destroy Islamic State facilitation, and support networks and disrupt recruitment of homegrown extremists into the Islamic State’s ranks.”
  • Fuse and share member state intelligence and information with special attention accorded to entry into and exit from the E.U. perimeter and to the links between international terrorism and crime. If we assume that Europe wishes to maintain its current institutional framework — the possibility of “Brexit” (British exit), including its highly capable security and intelligence services, from the European Union notwithstanding — there must be a proper reckoning with the Schengen arrangement in order to reconcile today’s pressing security concerns with the concept of open internal borders. To this end, there is still much to be done to fuse relevant E.U. information systems (Schengen, visa, etc.) that were consciously designed and built as independent, largely in the interest of data privacy. Equally critical is the need to fuse “classic” counterterrorism intelligence with much broader and more mainstream crime databases. Here, the architecture is essentially already in place: Europol maintains a unique information pool that includes all aspects of serious and organized crime as well as databases on foreign fighters. But leveraging this structure requires national will, based on calculations of national interest.
  • Develop a “rich picture” of the threat emanating from within Belgium. This should be a Belgian-led activity since locals are always best placed to explore and understand domestic circumstances for reasons of language, historical and political circumstance, and so on. Although the objective is to map out domestic areas and individuals of urgent concern, the idea is also to conduct link analysis that traces the interconnections between threat elements at the local and national levels with transnational threats. The exercise should begin with Belgium and ultimately expand to and include every E.U. country. Belgium’s intelligence and law enforcement mistakes up to this point should not result in their input being discarded and dismissed moving forward. The more productive course would be to evaluate and integrate their insights into a wider yet more focused effort, driven for example by task force.

The foregoing could serve as first steps towards the adoption of an EU-wide strategy and structure aimed at policy coherence Europe-wide. Since 2010, the EU has successfully adopted such an approach to serious and organized crime by producing a single strategic threat assessment from which priorities, operational action, and prevention measures are agreed, and coordinated through Europol. That said, we concur with Watts that an immediate and effective European response is required, to counter and combat coherently and forcefully the transnational terrorist threat. But we also believe that existing centers of competence like Europol can be leveraged and integrated into the work of the proposed task force.

When it comes to counterterrorism, the to-do list for Belgium, for the European Union, and indeed for all of us, is both long and hard. But recent events, in tandem with the persisting pool of Western foreign fighters, both aspirants and returnees, underscore the urgent need for each of us — as individual countries and collectively — to continually up our game. Our baselines may differ, but we need to shorten this range, or else innocent Belgian, French, American, and other bystanders will continue to pay the price.


Frank J. Cilluffo directs the George Washington University Center for Cyber & Homeland Security (CCHS) and served as Special Assistant to the President for Homeland Security immediately after 9/11. Sharon L. Cardash is associate director of CCHS and previously served as Security Policy Advisor to Canada’s Minister of Foreign Affairs.


Photo credit: Michel wal