Terrorists don’t recognize borders. Europe’s security forces are failing because they do

Armed, but not ready.
Armed, but not ready.
Image: Reuters/Vincent Kessler
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

The March 22 attacks on the Brussels metro system and airport have been described as “an attack on all of Europe.” With Brussels having been struck a few months after Paris was subject to Europe’s worst terrorist attack in a decade, many are wondering how this can happen again, so soon and on such a large scale.

As the French and British leaders declared recently (pdf): “Europe is no longer a safe haven.”

Some have blamed the European Union (EU) itself for yet another catastrophic attack on a member state’s soil. But the Brussels attacks suggests the problem is the complete opposite: it’s Europe failure to work together across the region that’s the issue.

National vs. regional security

“National security and regional security are completely connected,” Fiona de Londras, a professor of global legal studies who focuses on counter-terrorism at the University of Birmingham, tells Quartz. “There’s no way of being secure nationally without strong transnational cooperation.”

“There is a long history in all security institutions of being very cautious about sharing information with anyone,” she adds. This has contributed to an intelligence black hole in Europe’s counterterrorism strategy.

Brahim Abdeslam, one of the Paris attackers who detonated his suicide vest outside the Comptoir Voltaire café, was previously known to Brussels police as the owner of a Brussels café, Les Beguines, that peddled drugs in an area known for its radicalism. Brahim and his brother, Salah, were both questioned by Brussels police about Brahim’s failed attempt to reach Syria (he got as far as Turkey). Security forces didn’t flag up these dribs and drabs of information with each other.

These failings became horribly obvious when the day after the Paris attacks, Salah Abdeslam was stopped by French police but was released. (He was finally caught last week in Brussels.)

Yet only half the EU’s member states have registered foreign fighters with the EU’s law enforcement agency’s main crime database. Europe’s counter-terrorism coordinator emphasizes the need to share information with Europe in an internal memo (pdf). Half the information on the foreign fighters on the database came from just six member states out of 28.

It may come as no surprise, then, that two of the men who carried out attacks in Brussels, the brothers Khalid and Brahim el-Bakraoui, were known to police and had criminal records. What’s slightly more disconcerting is the possible identity of the third attacker— Najim Laachraoui—who was earlier named as a wanted accomplice of Salah Abdeslam whose DNA had been discovered in the flat the Paris attackers stayed in.

Less than half of EU states want to share data

Belgium police and counterterrorism officials have been painfully honest about their inability to see an attack like this coming and the urgent need for pan-European security. Just a week before the March 22 attacks, a Belgian counterterrorism official told Buzzfeed:

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 Belgian example shows that even within a country, arguably even within one city, the exchange of information between the authorities being involved in policing and counterterrorism doesn’t work properly,” Bernhard Blumenau, a lecturer from Handa Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at the University of St. Andrews, tells Quartz. He adds this is “all the more true on the European level.”

“With terrorists crossing easily from one country to another, as happened for instance in the case of the Paris attackers, better coordination is urgently needed,” Blumenau adds.

The EU has been working on setting up an intelligence-sharing hub in the Hague within the framework of the Counter Terrorism Group. Though this hub is meant to be operational by the summer, Blumenau says that until yesterday the response rate of member states willing to join in and pool their data was low—only about 50%.

With Brussels now thought to have been attacked by same network as Paris, Thomas Hegghammer, a senior research fellow at the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment, tweeted it as a “watershed” moment for counter-terrorism in the EU.

As Guy Verhofstadt, a former Belgian prime minister, has previously said: “Terrorism is borderless; intelligence has to be borderless, too.”