Belgian investigators have taken a beating since failing to disrupt the Brussels bombings last week. They took more than four months to locate Salah Abdeslam in the very neighborhood he grew up in. Belgian investigators also missed the network’s talented bomb maker, Najim Laachraoui, who escaped arrest on Friday only to resurface the following Tuesday at the Brussels airport where he and one other terrorist detonated suicide belts. Three others executed suicide bombings in the Maelbeek subway station almost simultaneously. The attacks, initiated so quickly after the arrest of Abdeslam, have revealed Belgium has the inability to handle an expansive terrorism menace in its borders. Across Europe, they are not alone in this deficiency.
Belgium, like most other European countries, suffers from a counterterrorism capacity problem. Far too many European passport holders trotted off to the Islamic State’s ranks in Syria and Iraq in recent years. They now return emboldened by the Islamic State’s well-rooted facilitation network and empowered by years of combat experience. This deadly combination has and most assuredly will continue to generate terrorist attacks directed and inspired by the Islamic State.
This should not come as a surprise to anyone. European security services have long been concerned (although perhaps not concerned enough) about foreign jihadist fighters returning home to disenfranchised diaspora communities that turn a blind eye to their nefarious activities. While Europe’s counterterrorism capacity has been stretched, failing to anticipate the growth of the Islamic State in Europe ultimately speaks to incompetence. Syria’s foreign fighter inflows and the resulting creation of sophisticated and capable terrorist networks was not probable, it was inevitable. Failing to anticipate and prepare for this eventuality has left Europe vulnerable to a trend that could have been avoided had intelligence been shared and a united front created across the Union.
Individually, certain European countries like the United Kingdom, France, and Germany have vast counterterrorism experience and effective integration of intelligence and law enforcement. As a whole, however, the European Union’s counterterrorism efforts are a patchwork of bureaucracies, capabilities, and regulations. Smaller countries have free ridden for years on the enforcement efforts of larger states. The Islamic State’s returning foreign fighter networks exploited the seams of the European Union, striking the continent where it is weakest. Belgium, like other smaller countries in Europe such as Denmark and the Netherlands, has witnessed large migrations of fighters to Syria and Iraq. These countries don’t have sizeable intelligence organizations or sufficient investigative capacity to pursue experienced Islamic State networks slipping across borders and communicating surreptitiously.