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.”
Death toll rises to 170 in Germany and Belgium floods
The death toll in devastating flooding in western Germany and Belgium rose to at least 170 on Saturday (17 July) after burst rivers and flash floods this week collapsed houses and ripped up roads and power lines, write Petra Wischgoll,
David Sahl, Matthias Inverardi in Duesseldorf, Philip Blenkinsop in Brussels, Christoph Steitz in Frankfurt and Bart Meijer in Amsterdam.
Some 143 people died in the flooding in Germany's worst natural disaster in more than half a century. That included about 98 in the Ahrweiler district south of Cologne, according to police.
Hundreds of people were still missing or unreachable as several areas were inaccessible due to high water levels while communication in some places was still down.
Residents and business owners struggled to pick up the pieces in battered towns.
"Everything is completely destroyed. You don't recognise the scenery," said Michael Lang, owner of a wine shop in the town of Bad Neuenahr-Ahrweiler in Ahrweiler, fighting back tears.
German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier visited Erftstadt in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, where the disaster killed at least 45 people.
"We mourn with those that have lost friends, acquaintances, family members," he said. "Their fate is ripping our hearts apart."
Around 700 residents were evacuated late on Friday after a dam broke in the town of Wassenberg near Cologne, authorities said.
But Wassenberg mayor Marcel Maurer said water levels had been stabilising since the night. "It's too early to give the all-clear but we are cautiously optimistic," he said.
The Steinbachtal dam in western Germany, however, remained at risk of breaching, authorities said after some 4,500 people were evacuated from homes downstream.
Steinmeier said it would take weeks before the full damage, expected to require several billions of euros in reconstruction funds, could be assessed.
Armin Laschet, state premier of North Rhine-Westphalia and the ruling CDU party's candidate in September's general election, said he would speak to Finance Minister Olaf Scholz in the coming days about financial support.
Chancellor Angela Merkel was expected to travel on Sunday to Rhineland Palatinate, the state that is home to the devastated village of Schuld.
In Belgium, the death toll rose to 27, according to the national crisis centre, which is co-ordinating the relief operation there.
It added that 103 people were "missing or unreachable". Some were likely unreachable because they could not recharge mobile phones or were in hospital without identity papers, the centre said.
Over the past several days the floods, which have mostly hit the German states of Rhineland Palatinate and North Rhine-Westphalia and eastern Belgium, have cut off entire communities from power and communications.
RWE (RWEG.DE), Germany's largest power producer, said on Saturday its opencast mine in Inden and the Weisweiler coal-fired power plant were massively affected, adding that the plant was running at lower capacity after the situation stabilized.
In the southern Belgian provinces of Luxembourg and Namur, authorities rushed to supply drinking water to households.
Flood water levels slowly fell in the worst hit parts of Belgium, allowing residents to sort through damaged possessions. Prime Minister Alexander De Croo and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen visited some areas on Saturday afternoon.
Belgian rail network operator Infrabel published plans of repairs to lines, some of which would be back in service only at the very end of August.
Emergency services in the Netherlands also remained on high alert as overflowing rivers threatened towns and villages throughout the southern province of Limburg.
Tens of thousands of residents in the region have been evacuated in the past two days, while soldiers, fire brigades and volunteers worked frantically throughout Friday night (16 July) to enforce dykes and prevent flooding.
The Dutch have so far escaped disaster on the scale of its neighbours, and as of Saturday morning no casualties had been reported.
Scientists have long said that climate change will lead to heavier downpours. But determining its role in these relentless rainfalls will take at least several weeks to research, scientists said on Friday.
UK residents among those from 24 countries that are banned from travelling to Belgium
From Saturday 26 June, people travelling from a total of 24 countries have been banned from entering Belgium in all but a few exceptional circumstances. Among the countries on the travel ban list is the United Kingdom. The ban on people from the 24 countries on the list from entering Belgium is an attempt to stop or at least slow down the spread of more virulent strains of coronavirus such as the Delta variant. Sat 26 Jun 11:01 Other countries on the list include South Africa, Brazil and India. They have been on the travel ban list since late April. They have now been joined by the UK, where the prevalence of the Delta variant has seen the number of new coronavirus infections rise sharply in recent weeks.
On 25 June there were 15,810 new infections recorded in the UK, on 24 June this was 16,703. The population of the UK is around 6 times that of Belgium. Many of the countries on the list are in Latin America (Brazil, Argentina, Bolivia, Chili, Colombia, Paraguay, Peru, Uruguay, Suriname and Trinidad and Tobago). The African countries on the list are South Africa, Botswana, Congo, Swaziland, Lesotho, Mozambique Namibia, Uganda, Zimbabwe and Tunisia. Travellers from Bangladesh, Georgia, Nepal, India and Pakistan are also not welcome, nor are people travelling to Belgium from Bahrein.
An exception to the ban on people from these countries entering Belgium is made for Belgian nationals and people officially resident there. There are also exceptions for diplomats, people working for certain international organisation and people that need to come here on humanitarian grounds. Passengers transiting via Brussels Airport are not covered by the ban.
European Jewish leader to seek meeting with Belgian Interior Minister over plan to remove army protection at Jewish institutions
The European Jewish Association deplores that the decision was taken without consultation with Jewish communities and without a suitable alternative being proposed. EJA Chairman Rabbi Menachem Margolin rails against decision, saying it makes ‘Zero sense’ and adding that in absence of providing alternative security arrangements, it leaves Jews “wide open with a target sign on our backs”. The Belgian planned move takes place as anti-semitism is increasing in Europe, not decreasing, writes Yossi Lempkowicz.
The head of the Europen Jewish Association (EJA), a Brussels-based umbrella group representing Jewish communities across Europe, has written to Belgian Interior Minister, Annelies Verlinden, seeking an urgent meeting with her to discuss a government plan to remove army protection from Jewish buildings and institutions on 1 September. Rabbi Menachem Margolin, who has learned "with great alarm" the plan to remove army protection through its partner organization the Forum of Jewish organizations in Antwerp and Belgian MP Michael Freilich, will ask the minister for the move to be reconsidered. He is calling for a urgent meeting "in order to find common ground and to try and mitigate the effects of this proposal".
The European Jewish Association deplores that the decision was taken without consultation with Jewish communities and without a suitable alternative being proposed. In Belgium the security threat is currently medium according to the metrics provided by governments own Coordination Unit for Threat Analysis (CUTA). But for Jewish Communities, as well as the American and Israeli embassies, the threat remains “serious and probable”. Army presence at Jewish buildings has been in place since the terrorist attack against the Jewish Museum in Brussels in May 2014 which left four people dead.
In a statement, EJA Chairman Rabbi Margolin said: “The Belgian government has up until now been exemplary in its protection of Jewish Communities. In fact, we at the European Jewish Association have held up the Belgian example as one to be emulated by other member qtates. For this dedication to keeping us safe and secure we have always expressed our utmost gratitude and appreciation."
"Is it also because of this dedication that the decision to remove the army on 1 September makes Zero sense,’’ he added. "Unlike the US and Israeli embassies, Jewish communities do not have access to any State security apparatus," he noted. “It is alarming too that Jewish communities have not even been properly consulted about this move. Nor is the government presently proposing any alternatives. As of now, it leaves Jews wide open and with a target on our backs," deplored Rabbi Margolin. The Belgian planned move takes place as anti-semitism is increasing in Europe, not decreasing.
"Belgium, sadly is not immune to this. The pandemic, the recent Gaza operation and its fallout are worrying Jews enough as it is, without this even added to the equation. Worse, it sends a signal to other European countries to do likewise. I am urging the Belgian government to reconsider this decision or at the very least offer a solution in its stead,” said Rabbi Margolin.
MP Michael Freilich is reportedly proposing a legislation that would see a €3 million fund made available to Jewish communities to increase their security in light of the 1 September plans. It will be urging the government to preserve the same level of security as before. The text of the resolution is to be discussed and voted tomorrow (6 July) in the Parliament’s committee on internal affairs. The Interior Minister’s Office couldn’t be joined for a comment on the plan. Around 35,000 Jews live in Belgium, mainly in Brussels and Antwerp.
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