Bombs in Brussels Expose Frailties of Police Tracking Jihadists

Dramatic Footage Moments After Brussels Airport Blast
  • Belgium highlights struggle to coordinate security effort
  • Resources needed for surveillance `are overwhelming'

The bombs that killed more than 30 people in Brussels exposed the limitations of police and intelligence work even in a European capital already on high alert for terrorism.

There have been long-standing failures to penetrate groups of Islamic extremists living in the Belgian capital, and French security experts have said it takes 10 to 20 agents to keep complete tabs on a single individual. More worrying is the unbalanced arithmetic inherent to modern counter-terrorism: While the police have to win every time, attackers need only to win once to cause carnage.

Map of Brussels attacks
Map of Brussels attacks
Bloomberg

"You’re dealing with a very big problem that has quite strong roots in this country, and that the Belgians are having difficulty dealing with," said Raffaelo Pantucci, director of international security studies at London’s Royal United Services Institute. Even with suspected extremists under tight watch, "you don’t know that you’re not just looking at a partial piece of the picture," he said.

Islamic State militants claimed responsibility for the atrocities in Brussels on Tuesday. They came four days after Belgian police arrested Saleh Abdeslam, a Brussels-born Frenchman who prosecutors believe helped perpetrate the November massacres in Paris. While some of attackers in France were known to police for having ties to Islamist groups, officials there at the time said they couldn’t maintain 24-hour surveillance of the hundreds of people on their watchlist.

Watching, Waiting

That challenge is acute in Belgium, said Scott Stewart, the vice-president of tactical analysis at security firm Stratfor and a former U.S. State Department special agent. Abdeslam was hiding out in Molenbeek, a heavily Muslim neighborhood of Brussels that’s seen repeated raids by armed police since the Paris attacks.

Police in Brussels.
Police in Brussels.
Photographer: Martin Meissner/AP Photo

"People underestimate the amount of resources it takes to surveil someone," Stewart said. Even with a small number of suspects, "you have shifts, you have days off. You need technicians, translators,” he said. “It just becomes overwhelming.”

Belgium’s main intelligence agency, State Security, has just 500 to 600 staff, according to local press reports. Belgian politicians have also lamented the fragmentation of policing, with six police departments responsible for law and order in Brussels, a city of just over a million residents. Coordination efforts are also hindered by long-standing, nationwide tension between French- and Flemish-speaking communities.

The country’s problem with Islamic extremism is almost inverse to Belgium’s intelligence resources. With an estimated 440 citizens fighting with militant organizations in Syria and Iraq, the country of about 11 million is the largest per-capita European source of jihadists, according to a 2015 study by the International Centre for the Study of Radicalization.

Vulnerable Cities

In January, police killed two suspected terrorists and arrested a third in Verviers, near Liege, preventing what might have been a "major attack."

In 2013 a gunman who had spent time in Syria killed four at the Brussels Jewish Museum, and last year passengers overpowered a man wielding a Kalashnikov rifle on a high-speed train that had just departed the capital.

To be sure, Tuesday’s attacks took advantage of vulnerabilities common to every modern society, not just Belgium, and particularly in the European Union, whose cornerstone is freedom of movement around the continent.

The pair of attacks involved a double bombing in the departures hall of Brussels airport and an explosion at a metro station near the main EU offices. Thirty-one people were killed and 180 injured according to Belgian authorities, who said at least one of the airport explosions was a suicide bombing.

Theairport explosions occurred well outside the security cordons for departing passengers, and like most cities Brussels has no security checks at subway entrances. It’s not easy to see how either type of location could be better protected, security experts said. External checkpoints at airports, for example, would just present a new target.

That means there’s no substitute for better intelligence work, and long-term efforts to combat radicalization, according to Stewart at Stratfor.

"If you have a motivated, dedicated person who wants to kill someone it’s quite easy,” he said. “There are soft targets everywhere."

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