Editorial Board

What Went Wrong in Brussels

Forewarned was not forearmed.

Photographer: Carl Court/Getty Images

The terrorists who attacked Brussels on Tuesday have no concern for human life. But no level of barbarity can ever overcome the global resolve to defeat them -- or to defend freedom and human rights not only in Europe but around the world.

On Friday, Belgian officials captured Salah Abdeslam, the most wanted suspect in November's attacks in Paris. Abdeslam had evaded police for four months and was discovered with a cache of weapons that suggested further planned attacks and a wider network of collaborators than previously believed. Authorities suspect that some 5,000 people have returned to Europe after being trained by Islamic State.

Any security system is only as strong as its weakest link. France probably has the continent's strongest anti-terrorism laws and most aggressive law enforcement -- which explains why the Paris attacks were plotted and carried out from Belgium. Europe will never be a tight confederation along the lines of the U.S., but there is still far more that can be done to strengthen existing counterterrorism and policing institutions.

Consider Europol, the closest the EU has to a shared police force. It has a paltry budget of 100 million euros, and some 700 employees. It has no real law-enforcement powers -- its agents cannot make arrests -- and can only get involved in an investigation if a member state requests its help. After the Paris attacks, the European Parliament voted overwhelmingly to give Europol the power to create new units to track terrorists and crack down on jihadist groups' Internet propaganda. Yet due to EU bureaucracy, those changes will not take effect until April 2017.

Meanwhile, a proposal to create a shared flight-passenger database awaits a vote in the EU parliament. Dismantling the Schengen system allowing free travel between member states remains problematic, but individual countries can do more to monitor cross-border flows for suspicious passengers and activities. Things remain so slipshod that the various intelligence services cannot even agree on consistent rules for translating names of suspected terrorists from Arabic or Cyrillic.

While national and international action is vital, it's only part of the answer. New York, London, Madrid, Mumbai, Paris -- all are reminders that cities are on the front lines in the fight against terrorism. For local authorities to provide effective protection against attacks, national and international support is crucial.

The citizens of Brussels have the support and sympathy of the civilized world. The terrorists who did this should receive no quarter. But better local law enforcement, and greater cooperation among European governments, can make these kinds of attacks less likely.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.