March 24, 2016

TSG IntelBrief: Brussels and the Difficulties in Connecting the Dots

• The Brussels attacks demonstrate the relative ease with which terrorists and criminals cross EU borders, while valuable intelligence is prevented from doing the same

• Unlike the United States, which has the FBI, the EU lacks a central law enforcement agency with the capability and authority to operate across member states

• Nations are loath to share intelligence priorities and capabilities within their own borders, let alone with other countries, no matter how wedded they might be to the concept of a common union

• The current construct of sharing between the various autonomous security agencies may need to be reexamined given the nature of the current and long-term threat.


The attacks in Brussels show that the clues available to various member states of the European Union (EU) continue to remain unconnected until after the fact. Some of this persistent difficulty lies in the surging threat level over the last few years across Europe, radiating out from the so-called Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. Protocols and capabilities that once might have been sufficient are proving otherwise in the new reality of a baseline threat without precedent. Still, some of the difficulty is related to the way the EU facilitates borderless travel while denying the same ease to matters of intelligence and security.

Most of the known members of the cell that attacked Brussels on March 22 and Paris last November were also 'known wolves of terror.' Most had criminal records; some were even marked as terrorists, yet were still able to move undetected prior to the attack. A lack of information sharing or border control appears to have played a role for at least one of the Brussels attackers. On March 23, Turkey announced that last June it had deported Ibrahim el-Bakraoui—who, along with his brother Khalid, blew himself up in the attacks—for suspicion of being an Islamic State foreign fighter. He was sent to the Netherlands with what Ankara maintained were explicit warnings of his likely terror connections. Despite this, el-Bakraoui was able to travel between the Netherlands and Belgium, and it is unclear if authorities in Brussels were aware of the information from Turkey.

Despite the best of intentions, most—if not all—countries are unlikely to share intelligence beyond immediate threat reporting. Wider sharing of one’s capabilities, priorities, and limitations with foreign governments is anathema to the entire raison d’être of an intelligence agency. The EU has yet to figure out how to resolve this issue. 

The EU as a construct lacks an intelligence and/or law enforcement agency that can operate throughout all its member nations; Interpol is not an enforcement agency. While the U.S. has open borders between its states, crimes that cross these borders are under the purview of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Investigations such as those surrounding the Paris and Brussels attacks would be handled by the FBI had they occurred in Texas and Georgia. The unity of command along with the in-depth knowledge of local and state agencies has proven very effective at fighting terrorism in the United States.

Given the near and long-term terror threats facing the EU and the continent as a whole, the notion of a European investigatory agency merits consideration. The value of a borderless law enforcement agency is as apparent as it would be difficult to enact among nations who have only recently been joined in a common union, following centuries of distinct languages, cultures, and societies.


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