#BrusselsAttacks: Attacks ‘show the need’ for improved co-operation between Europe’s intelligence agencies
A Brussels conference heard that the ISIS attacks on Brussels, which killed 31 people and injured another 270 on 22 March, further underline the urgent need for improved collaboration between Europe’s intelligence services, writes Martin Banks.
The policy dialogue was told of the need for improved co-operation between the intelligence services and the police in all member states, “working together to detain and deter terrorists.”
The debate was organized before Tuesday’s atrocity but, it was said, the attacks on the city’s airport and a city centre subway gave the discussion added poignancy.
It was organized by the European Foundation for Democracy and the European Policy Centre, two respected Brussels-based policy institutes, in conjunction with the Counter Extremism Project, a US-based initiative which was launched in Brussels six months ago, and ISPI, the Milan-based Institute for International Political Studies.
Opening the two-hour hearing, the first in a series of policy dialogues on jihadist radicalization and the European responses, Fabian Zuleeg, chief executive of the European Policy Centre, said the events of this week, together with the attacks on Paris in November and recent bombings in Ankara, showed the problem of tackling Jihadist radicalization was a Europe-wide issue.
The fact that the terrorists had chosen well known landmarks such as an airport and the EU Quarter of Brussels was “symbolically important” and sent a “clear message” as to their intentions.
Amanda Paul, a senior policy analyst at the European Policy Centre, who moderated the debate, noted that the “ugly attack”, the latest in a series of such atrocities on capital cities in Europe, showed that it was “more important than ever” to take preventive measures.
A keynote speaker, Rashad Ali, head of strategy at the UK-based Institute for Strategic Dialogue, said that improved intelligence gathering and collaboration between Europe’s police forces and intelligence agencies would be vital in dealing with such phenomenon.
Ali, who has worked closely on counter terrorist issues, said that Europe was now on the “frontline” in the fight against terrorism and radicalization and warned of an even “broader” reach of a “global terrorist project”.
“It is not the first time we have faced such a challenge but what has changed and what is new is the nature of the challenge,” he told the packed meeting.
The challenge, he asserted, came from those who have an “entirely different” view of society from the mainstream and this made the response to such a threat “fundamentally” important.
Ali, a well-known counter terrorist practitioner, cautioned against “engaging” with extremists, arguing that this could be “suicidal”. But he also insisted that it was equally important to ensure that “all Muslims are not labelled in the same way.”
Despite the temptation for reactionary measures in the wake of attacks such as those in Brussels, Ali also said it was vital that those seeking to counter such threats did not “compromise” their “values and principles.”
Further contributions came from Alexander Ritzmann, a senior research fellow at the Brandenburg Institute for Security and Society, who also strongly argued against instant reactionary measures.
Ritzmann, who has worked in the area of counter terrorism for many years, also questioned the capacity of the intelligence agencies to address the issues relating to jihadism, religious radicalisation and violent extremism.
He said he was “amazed” that, 15 years after the 9/11 attacks on the Twin Towers in New York, the West still “did not seem to understand” that terrorism was merely a “tactic” to achieve a specific objective.
“These people do these things not just to kill people – they want a reaction from us,” he argued.
One aim of terrorist attacks was to push moderate Muslims towards extremism and, in the event of attacks such as those in Istanbul, Brussels and other cities, for the Western powers to then “over react.”
Ritzmann added: “This would then allow the extremists to turn round and say to their recruits, ‘we told you so’.
“ISIS and other extremists want to lure the West into a battle on their territory and that is why they want the Americans to send ground troops to Syria.”
He was particularly keen also to highlight what he sees as current shortcomings in the capacity of some intelligence agencies to adequately deal with the threat to domestic and external security of many countries.
“You have to ask questions about the capabilities of our security and intelligence services and also their openness for co-operation and collaboration.”
“Information gathering and information exchange are the cornerstone of our security,” he asserted.
His comments took on added significance after it emerged that the men behind the Brussels bombings were known to police while the head of Europol has also warned that as many as 5,000 ISIS trained jihadists are wandering free in Europe
Ritzmann, though, said that despite the apparently bleak outlook there was some room for optimism, adding: “We can deal with these people – we just need to be smarter in doing it.
Another speaker, Bakary Sambe, a Senegal-based senior fellow at the European Foundation for Democracy, reminded the audience that the problem of radicalisation and extremism was not confined to Europe but was also prevalent in Africa
He pointed out that he knew of instances where young Africans had been “trained” at mosques financed and built by ISIS-affiliates in Senegal and then gone on to fight for the group in Syria
“We have this problem in Africa too of course. It is a clash of religious models and a sort of ‘Islamization’ that is taking place.”
While the “ideological dimension” could not be ignored, the university lecturer suggested that the only way to address the issue in the long term was to “invest more” in preventative measures.
In a short Q&A session, some panellists spoke of the ongoing need for an effective alternative, or “counter narrative”, to combat the propaganda that continues to attract young Muslim men and women through a variety of ways to ISIS and such groups.
Ritzmann suggested that the “messenger (s)” of such a counter argument was just as important as the message it sought to convey.
Ritzmann also pointed out that while US-led coalition bombing and other measures had made serious dents in ISIS-held territory and had also badly hit revenue sourced from its oil infrastructure, ISIS still held land “the size of the United Kingdom”.
There was a consensus among the participants that it was the terrorist networks, which had spread “much further than many thought”, that should be increasingly targeted.
Ali, responding to a question about new threats, spoke about a significant “change of tactic” by ISIS which, he said, was now increasingly using suicide bombers such as those deployed on the streets of Brussels.
Looking to the future, he predicted: “I think we are going to see a greater emphasis on broader terrorist attacks around the world and that is one reason why we need to step back and look at all this in a more sophisticated way.”
Roberta Bonazzi, executive director at the European Foundation for Democracy pointed to the need expose the Islamist ideology that inspires and drives such terrorist acts.
“This is a pervasive ideology,” Bonazzi said, “that is the source of radicalization that can lead to terrorism and/or recruitment to terrorist organizations.”