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Paris, Brussels attacks highlight EU security challenges

Emmanuel Dunand, AFP | Belgian police patrol the streets of Brussels.

Terrorist networks operating across EU borders have carried out two large-scale terrorist attacks on European capitals within months of each other, highlighting the weaknesses of both domestic and international intelligence services.


Coming on the heels of the November attacks in Paris, last week’s bombings in Brussels – carried out by suspects with links to the Paris attackers – underscored weaknesses in both the French and Belgian security structures. But some analysts say that the focus on jihadism risks eclipsing other nascent threats, like those posed by a far right angered by the influx of migrants into Europe.

Belgium suffers from a fragmented security service that, due to the country’s geographic and linguistic divisions, often fails to share information effectively.

France, on the other hand, has moved over the past decade to an increasingly centralised structure. But this new system left it with “no more competence at the local level” to detect criminal or terrorist activity, according to Jean-Charles Brisard, chairman of the Centre for the Analysis of Terrorism in Paris.

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European police and counterintelligence forces are facing a confluence of conditions that makes the current threat particularly thorny to tackle, one of which is Europe’s open-border Schengen system. Most of the perpetrators of recent attacks in Paris and Brussels were European citizens who could move between countries on the continent freely and undetected.

Another challenge is posed by the tight social systems in which jihadis operate. Most of these networks consist of family members and close friends, webs of acquaintances so trusted and so poorly integrated into the larger society as to be almost impregnable to outsiders, said Leandro Di Natala, a senior analyst at the European Strategic Intelligence and Security Center in Brussels.

Travelling to Syria via Turkey to train as a jihadi poses fewer logistical problems than going to Afghanistan or Pakistan, he added.

These fighters come back to Europe trained and able to operate independently, perhaps taking strategic direction from the Islamic State group but acting “with quite a lot of initiative and autonomy, and relying on very strong interpersonal links,” Di Natala said.

The numbers of people lured to jihad seems to have caught authorities by surprise. “I think they vastly underestimated the size,” said Raffaello Pantucci, director of International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute. “The scale of people you see going to Syria and Iraq… they didn’t realise it could escalate so quickly.”

That there would be terrorist activity in Europe was anticipated, but the scope and complexity seen in the Paris attacks was not. “Everyone was really surprised by the size of that network,” Pantucci said.

The number of potential jihadists has increased so dramatically since 2013 that counterterrorism authorities have been overwhelmed. In Belgium, for example, there are roughly 600 intelligence agents versus “at least 600 jihadists”, Brisard said.

More Belgian citizens per capita have left to train for jihad abroad than from any other EU nation, with a December report from the Soufan Group intelligence think tank estimating the number of fighters at 470. But in absolute terms it is French citizens who make up the largest contingent of jihadis from Europe, with at least 1,700 believed to be fighting in Syria or Iraq.


European security services are also struggling from a shortage of manpower, with more information coming in than can be effectively analysed with the resources at hand. Intelligence agencies are increasingly relying on electronic devices, Brisard said, which are not sufficient: recognising potential threats requires different types of analysis, including psychiatrists and more agents on the ground.

But gathering and analysing intelligence is just part of the challenge. Sharing information across the European Union's 28 sovereign nations is even trickier. Part of the problem is systemic: while there are organisations that can serve as central clearing houses for information, Europol and the NATO situation centre (SITCEN) among them, many still lack the basic tools they need to operate effectively.

For example, Europe still doesn’t have a Passenger Name Record system, which would enable security agencies across Europe to share information on airline passengers. The open borders of the Schengen zone render international Interpol arrest warrants difficult to execute. And even when there are border checkpoints, they are often not equipped to flag dangerous individuals. Between 15 and 20 percent of border posts don’t have electronic systems against which they can check identity documents, Brisard said.

“The real issue today is at the multilateral level,” Brisard said. “There is a real revolution that needs to be done at the European level.”

SITCEN, for its part, falls victim to the national priorities of its more than two dozen constituent members. “It’s a question of focus and prioritisation,” Pantucci said.

Countries that just a few decades ago were on opposing ends of the Cold War political divide, and which even today have different loyalties and interests, don’t always want to divulge their most closely guarded secrets to one another. “Europol is only able to do what its members allow it to do,” he said.

One solution, according to Pantucci, would be to compartmentalise what kinds of information is shared. Intelligence related to terrorism could be put into a central clearing house while other information could be kept closer to home.

Rising threats from the right

The spotlight on Islamist extremists may be diverting attention from another danger in Europe that seems poised to expand: that posed by right-wing extremists. Fuelled by anger about the massive influx of migrants into Europe and by the terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels, right-wing groups are growing “far more febrile”, Pantucci said.

Belgian riot police fired water cannon on Sunday to disperse anti-migrant protesters who disrupted mourners at a shrine for victims of the Brussels attacks.

A report released earlier this year by experts from the Royal United Services Institute, Chatham House, the Institute for Strategic Dialogue and the University of Leiden in the Netherlands found that 33 percent of lone-wolf attacks that were planned and disrupted or carried out in Europe over the past 15 years were perpetrated by right-wing extremists, a number rivaling the 38 percent of those that were religiously inspired.

With the rise of the far right in countries throughout Europe, such incidents are likely to increase. “Political movements will have sharp edges and the sharp edges will be terrorists,” said Pantucci, who is one of the authors of the report.

Islamists and right wingers such as Pavlo Lapshyn, a far-right terrorist who stabbed an elderly Muslim to death in Birmingham in 2013 and detonated bombs outside three UK mosques, share a clash-of-civilisations ideology that is likely to intensify under current political conditions. The two groups are interrelated and feed on one another, according to Brisard.

“We have to focus on both at the same time,” he said. “We have to be extremely attentive.”

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