Consortium Against Terrorist Finance Mar. 31, 2016, 1:07pm

Not two hours after the horrific March 22 Brussels terror attacks the media began criticizing Belgium’s security capabilities. The first revelation was Turkey’s expulsion months before of suicide bomber Ibrahim Bakraoui with a stern and explicit warning to Belgium that he was a committed ISIS fighter. What followed is best described as a barrage of damning criticisms of the fractured Belgian national security infrastructure, as well as institutional “handcuffs” placed on its anti-terrorism policing efforts.

Weakness of the Belgian national security state is but a symptom of an overall absence of governmental integration, which in turn is a manifestation of historic tensions between the Flemish (Dutch speaking) and Walloon (French speaking) regions. In a word, the extreme regional autonomy that resulted works against centralization and accountability at the national level - a weakness found in other nations, such as Pakistan, with similarly painful consequences in the fight against terrorism. Further impeding the goal of national security centralization are autonomous regional ministries, political realities with substantial carryover impact to local government administration. There, across the neighborhoods of Belgium’s patchwork of tightly homogenous communities, police patrol and investigate within highly localized cultures. And what works fine for one community to combat simple property crimes can defeat another community’s effort to identify potential terrorists early on. According to one recent observer, “Belgium is no longer a nation-state … but rather a federation of three different regions (Flanders, Wallonia and Greater Brussels) …. As a result, it is host to an array of police and juridical districts that don’t map onto each other geographically, demographically or politically [emphasis added].  

Counterterrorism consequences of Belgium’s political culture of “decentralization teetering on fragmentation” may not have been apparent prior to the extremist attacks starting in 2014 - but the factors are becoming painfully evident now. Some critics observe the police are under-manned in contrast to peer agencies in other nations, while still others note a general reluctance to share information - as though security officials and police might cure themselves of a bad habit with a strong dose of willpower. Unfortunately, the root causes of the problems go deeper, and even if Belgian national authorities chose the instant of the first bomb’s detonation on March 22 to speed up the consolidation of dispersed intelligence and crime preventive functions, the evolutionary process of national integration can take years.

That is why workable recommendations for improved counterterrorism policy in Belgium need to accept the current level of counterproductive decentralization - with one vital exception: Belgium’s laws prohibiting technical surveillance of phones and computers must be repealed, as well as the law prohibiting information exchange and collaboration between security and law enforcement agencies (. Without lifting these prohibitions, no amount of increased funding or exhortations for agencies to cooperate will make the slightest difference.  

An antiterrorist operation in Brussels' Schaerbeek suburb.
An antiterrorist operation in Brussels' Schaerbeek suburb.

Next, Belgian regional and local public safety officials should consider a U.S. local initiative to engage the fire service in local counterterrorism efforts. Specifically, an initiative piloted by the NY Fire Department - known as the Fire Service Intelligence Enterprise (FSIE) - has been taken nationwide and holds tremendous promise for preventing terrorism incidents linked to incendiary attacks, which include bomb factories. Unknown even to most Americans, the fire service has emergency powers in life protection and lifesaving situations that it can exercise on a routine basis - powers like demanding searches of a residence if fire code or other violations could endanger human life. Also, most local arson and many bomb squads are housed in fire departments because the core hazard of incendiary cause is a fire service, not police, responsibility. In many urban environments, it is the fire department that maintains histories of extremists (almost always home grown) who enjoy building pipe bombs and other lethal explosive devices in their spare time. Most intelligence efforts, as a matter of unintentional routine, bypass the fire service when linking up police in fusion center and other law enforcement intelligence sharing networks - although that oversight is undergoing correction.

FSIE is a first class, professional initiative to offer the fire service a seat at the policy table. In fact, the New York FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force includes the FSIE program, as do several other intelligence sharing compacts. Whatever Belgian security and law enforcement reforms are now underway, building an environment of intelligence sharing among agencies unaccustomed to it for generations will be difficult and take time. Immediately reaching out to the local fire service is a “hold harmless” reform with no real or potential downsides that invites experts in incendiary crime to collaborative policymaking in an environment where suicide bombers are the central lethal threats.    

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