By James Lindsay
Today, as Belgium resurfaces from a four-day lockdown, David Cameron outlines a new “comprehensive” plan to tackle so-called Islamic State. In Brussels meanwhile, restaurants and schools are reopening, but the usually bustling shopping areas remain quiet; two terrorists are still on the loose. “We are doing everything we can to return the situation to normal,” Charles Michel, the Belgian Prime Minister said, but the terrorist threat is still imminent and credible.
This is not the first time Belgium has been implicated in a terrorist attack. Only in January, a major Islamist plot was foiled, apparently at the last minute, resulting in the shootings of two suspected terrorists near the border with Germany. Authorities claimed the men, who were Belgian nationals, had recently returned from fighting in Syria and were part of a multi-national homegrown cell of jihadists.
If in January only few people probed into the circumstances which make Belgian soil as fertile as it is for terrorists, the recent bombings in Paris, which left 130 people dead, mean they are now on everyone’s radar.
Founded in 1830, breaking away from the Netherlands, Belgium has been labelled the world’s most prosperous failed state. Formed from territory in the Lowlands, Belgium’s patchwork make-up yields three national languages, three parliaments and one predominant problem – a lack of unity.
Sus van Elzen, a Flemish writer, affirms how “it is in our genes to reject all centralising power”. This may work fine on the political spectrum, but it does not facilitate the tracking of terrorists. Information sharing is not easy in an environment of political parties and territories drawn along linguistic, ideological and opportunist lines.
This discord now has an added security element. Lost in the cloud of interconnecting (or inter-dividing) bodies responsible for combating terrorism were two brothers who would take part in the November 13th attacks. The two men had actually been on a list of suspected militants living in the Molenbeek area, notorious for being a hotbed of jihadist radicalisation in Belgium, for a month before the bombings.
Delegation of work, confusion surrounding the tracking of terrorists and lack of coordination mean that these men were never picked up and investigated. It probably does not help the cause that Brussels has six local police forces on top of a federal police service. Apparently, there were over 80 suspects on that list.
If Belgium is stricken with paranoia, they are not the only ones. European cities tremble; security forces are on constant alert. Another attack is probable. So what is to be done in the face of such anxiety? Well, the first issue for Belgium is to increase the transparency and exchange of intelligence on terrorism. It light of the Molenbeek situation and its jihadist links, it is easy to point the blame at the Belgian security forces, but no western European nation is exempt from pockets of radicalisation. Belgian security forces must take this opportunity – this lesson – to reassess their approach to fighting terrorism and departments must liaise better with one other. Perhaps centralisation is necessary. On a broader scale, European nations should work towards the creation of a multi-national body, using the European Union to mediate, aimed at increasing the exchange of terrorist-related information.
The bombings in Paris, and the consequences in Brussels and further afield, all have a common root, and that is the Syrian Crisis. It is here that the problem must be tackled. In his address to Parliament, Cameron rallied support for his bill to extend air strikes into Syria. They will “make us safer,” he says. But this debate seems irrelevant and outdated. The Iraq-Syria border is no longer worth talking about and a couple of British jets will have little impact anyway. Instead of making up for the embarrassment of the failure in the 2013 Syria vote, Cameron should increase British military presence in the region in the form of training units. Best of all, this would not require a vote in the Commons.
It is also high time for the US and its partners to swallow its pride and follow Russia’s backing of Assad. Putin has stepped into a breach left bare by Western inaction with concrete policy. If any positive can be drawn out of the recent Paris attacks and the downing of the Russian aircraft in Egypt, it should be the realisation that IS represents the greatest threat – not Assad, mass-murderer of civilians though he is. An all-encompassing coalition, including Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, must be formed to create a credible opponent to IS on the ground, supported by coordinated air strikes. The West should also push towards the establishment of safe havens, protected by an international peacekeeping force.
Political leaders are rightly calling for solidarity and unity in these times of peril but rhetoric can only go so far. It must be backed up by diplomacy.
Photograph: White House via Wikimedia Commons