terça-feira, 17 de novembro de 2015

The Belgian intelligence gap

The Belgian intelligence gap

Brussels law enforcement authorities questioned, then freed two suspects in Paris attacks.

By MAÏA DE LA BAUME AND GIULIA PARAVICINI 11/18/15, 12:16 AM CET Updated 11/18/15, 12:36 AM CET

The two brothers who allegedly took part in Friday’s attacks in Paris were questioned by Belgian authorities after one of them tried to travel to Syria earlier this year, but the Belgians let them go, a spokesman for the federal prosecutors’ office said Tuesday.

The revelation that Belgian authorities not only knew that the Abdeslam brothers were radicalized Islamists, but interrogated them, raises pointed questions about the actions of the country’s law enforcement and intelligence services in the months before the strikes on the French capital.

The failure of Belgium to spot a plot allegedly organized in Brussels or to flag concerns about the brothers to the French highlight gaps in the gathering and sharing of information between countries about potential terrorist activity.

The Abdeslams were allegedly part of an eight-man team that carried out the coordinated gun and bomb attacks in Paris that killed 129 people. The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL, claimed responsibility for the Paris attacks.

“We knew they were radicalized, and that they could go to Syria,” Eric Van Der Sypt, spokesman for the Belgian federal prosecutor’s office, told POLITICO. “But they showed no sign of possible threat. Even if we had signaled them to France, I doubt that we could have stopped them.”

European security officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said at least one of the brothers had traveled repeatedly between their home in Brussels and Paris in the weeks before the attack.

The older brother, 31-year-old Ibrahim Abdeslam — who blew himself up outside the Comptoir Voltaire café in Paris — “tried to go to Syria but he only got to Turkey,” said Van Der Sypt. The law enforcement didn’t detain him because “we didn’t have proof that he took part in the activities of a terrorist group,” he added.

The younger brother Salah Abdeslam is believed to be hiding in the Brussels area, another Belgian official told POLITICO.

“He was interrogated on his return, and his brother too,” said Van Der Sypt, referring to 26-year-old Salah Abdeslam, who is still on the run. It’s not clear if Salah Abdeslam tried to get to Syria.

Ibrahim Abdeslam denied that he had tried to travel to Syria, the prosecutor’s spokesman added.

Missed signals

For Louis Caprioli, who ran French intelligence for 20 years and is now a consultant for security firm GEOS, the attacks in Paris expose the shortcomings in cooperation between national police and intelligence agencies across national borders that terrorists traverse freely. “Belgian authorities could have signaled to the French that these attackers would threaten France’s security,” he said.

Over the past two years, Belgium has experienced a spate of successful and foiled terrorist attacks. Last year a French gunman of Algerian origin killed four people at a Jewish museum in Brussels; in January this year, Belgian police killed two men in raids on an Islamist group in the city of Verviers; and in August, a man opened fire on a train from Amsterdam to Paris via Brussels.

In all these cases, as well the Paris attacks, the suspects had links to the immigrant Brussels neighborhood of Molenbeek, which Belgian police have raided several times since Saturday afternoon.

“We knew they were radicalized, and that they could go to Syria. But they showed no sign of possible threat. Even if we had signaled them to France, I doubt that we could have stopped them.”
The older Abdeslam brother ran a café, Les Beguines, which had a rough reputation in the neighborhood and was closed down on November 4, nine days before the Paris attacks.

“There was a group of drug traffickers active in the café,” said Françoise Schepmans, the mayor of Molenbeek, who added that it was inevitable that “from such delinquency, it’s only a small step towards radicalization.”

Van Der Sypt, from the prosecutor’s office, said cooperation between Belgium and France was “very good,” but acknowledged that, with all the militants traveling to and from Syria, “Belgian police are already struggling to monitor these people 24/7.”

As a share of its population of 10 million, more Belgians have joined extremist militant groups in Syria and Iraq than citizens of any other EU state, according to studies. About five percent of Belgium’s population is Muslim.

More than 130 Belgians who fought in Syria have come back, according to police and prosecutor sources.

France and Belgium have task forces in each others’ countries to facilitate the sharing of information about terrorist activity, said Peter de Wael, spokesman for the Belgian federal police.

Belgian complications

Belgium’s unusual legal and administration systems complicates cooperation on counterterrorism with other countries. The country’s law enforcement agencies are Balkanized along linguistic and regional lines. Its counterterrorism laws give authorites less latitude to investigate terrorism than in France.

“When I need to find the name of a car owner who is suspected of a crime, I need to send them a letter of request,” complained a senior Italian police official, speaking to POLITICO on condition of anonymity. “I only have these problems with the Belgians.”

Belgian counterterrorism laws predate the rise of ISIL and the exodus of young Muslim men to Syria. The laws “were never designed to prosecute people going abroad to fight — they was only designed to combat terrorism domestically,” said Kris Luyckx, a lawyer who defended one foreign fighter in a trial this year.

Prompted by the shootout in Verviers this year, the government proposed 12 new counter-terrorism measures. It is now illegal to travel abroad with the intention of joining a terrorist group, and easier for security forces to tap the phones or electronic communications of suspected terrorists or recruiters.

“Privacy must sometimes yield to security,” said Brecht Vermeulen, who chairs the Belgiam Parliament’s interior affairs committee.

Belgium still has a long way to go before its rules are as tough as those in France. French legislation on surveillance has been toughened up since the Islamist attacks earlier this year on the satirical paper Charlie Hebdo and a Jewish grocery store in Paris, in which 17 people died, though the law has not yet been fully implemented. French authorities can keep terrorist suspects in custody for up to six days without charging them — in Belgium, it is 48 hours.

“We thought that it wasn’t necessary, we know how to handle 48-hour custodies,” said Van Der Sypt, who described France’s anti-terrorism laws as more “severe.”

After every terrorist strike since 9/11 in Europe, most recently the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January, European countries have pledged to improve cooperation on policing and intelligence. Despite that, counterterrorism remains mostly a national matter.

“When it comes to European anti-terrorist policy, coordination does not exist,” said one senior European official, who asked not to be identified by name. “When it comes to security, it is 95 percent the responsibility of the member states.”

Police with borders

The one tool created to share information about wanted or missing persons — the Schengen Information System — “is not used in a systematic way by member states on our external borders,” said the senior Italian anti-terrorism official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Belgian Interior Minister Jan Jambon, speaking at a POLITICO event in Brussels last week, said the exchange of information within the EU “isn’t always so obvious” but had improved a lot since the Charlie Hebdo attacks. Before then, four member countries were contributing information to Europol, the EU agency that coordinates the response to organized crime and terrorism. “Today, almost every country is contributing to the exchange of information,” said Jambon.

According to an internal document issued by European Council counter-terrorism coordinator Gilles de Kerchove, an excerpt of which was seen by POLITICO, 14 EU states, five other entities and Interpol have registered 1,595 people as foreign terrorist fighters on the Europol information system.

In the wake of the Paris attacks, calls are growing for an EU-wide response to ISIL terrorism. EU interior ministers on Friday will discuss possible measures, including better tracking of weapons and access to records of airlines’ passenger name records .

The ministers’ task could be made easier after the European Parliament civil liberties committee voted overwhelmingly last month to harmonize some of the existing national rules to help the fight against terrorism. The full Parliament will vote on their report this month in Strasbourg.

Security officials who push for improved coordination cite the case of Mehdi Nemmouche, the alleged 29-year-old perpetrator of the 2014 Jewish Museum attack in Brussels. A month before the attack, he arrived at a German airport, where he was stopped by German security. The Germans tipped off French intelligence — “but nothing happened and a month later the guy showed up in Brussels with a gun,” said the Italian police official.

Laurens Cerulus and Hans von der Buchard contributed to this article.


Maïa de La Baume and Giulia Paravicini  

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