Comment: Europe’s answer to Brussels bombs may be more damaging than ISIS

Brussels airportIn the past year, the Islamic State has claimed responsibility for at least nine terrorist attacks on foreign capitals. The growing list, which features Jakarta, Tunis, Paris, Beirut, Ankara, and Kuwait City, now includes the Belgian capital, Brussels. At least 34 people died in the attacks that rocked Brussels’ Zaventum airport and Maelbeek metro station on March 22, while another 300 were injured, 60 of them critically. This week’s bombings officially constitute the bloodiest terrorist attacks in Belgium’s history, prompting the country’s government to declare three days of national mourning.

Why did the Islamic State attack one of Europe’s smallest countries, with a population of just over 11 million? Some have suggested that Brussels was targeted by the terrorist group because it was an easy target. Observers noted that Belgium’s security and intelligence services are underfunded and demoralized —a “weak link in Europe”, in the words of one expert. There is no question that Belgium’s security apparatus is in need of serious overhaul; but the need is equally great in Amsterdam, in Athens, in Madrid, in Dublin, and elsewhere in Europe. In fact, the Islamic State could have struck any of these European capitals with the same ease that it attacked Brussels —and might still do so.

In reality, the Islamic State’s decision to attack Brussels was carefully calculated and consistent with the group’s overall strategy. The primary reason that the Islamists attacked Brussels is that Belgium is one of 30 countries that actively participate in the Combined Joint Task Force, the international group behind Operation Inherent Resolve. Led by the United States military, the operation has been targeting Islamic State forces in Iraq and Syria since October 2014. The Islamic State wished to send a message to Europeans that their military intervention in the Middle East will be costly at home. Secondly, Brussels was struck because it is the headquarters of the European Union, which last month declared the Islamic State’s campaign against religious and ethnic minorities in Syria and Iraq as an act of genocide. Third, and perhaps most importantly, Belgium was targeted because a significant percentage of its population —as much as 7 percent by some estimates— is Muslim.

What is more, the degree of integration of Belgian Muslims in mainstream life is markedly limited and partly explains why so many of them —400 by some estimates, the highest per-capita number in Europe—have emigrated to Syria and Iraq in order to join the Islamic State. It is worth remembering that the Islamic State emerged as the de facto guarantor or Sunni Muslims by essentially provoking Iraq’s Shiites to attack and marginalize the country’s Sunni Arab minority. Following a series of Shiite attacks against Sunni communities in Iraq, which were part of a broader post-2003 sectarian conflict between Sunnis and Shiites, the Islamic State emerged as the protector of Sunni Arabs and has since fought against Syrian Alawites, Hezbollah, Iranian forces, Iraqi Shiites, and others. Its popular support in Iraq and Syria stems from the fear held by Sunni Arabs that, if the Islamic State is defeated, their communities will be exterminated by vengeful and unforgiving Shiites.

Having gained from sectarianism in the Middle East, the Islamic State is now implementing the same tactic in Europe. It is thus targeting countries like France and Belgium, which have significant Muslim populations, in order to provoke aggressive reactions against domestic Muslim communities. In other words, it expects that attacks like those in Belgium will favor extremist ideologies throughout the European continent, and in turn further-marginalize European Muslims. The rise of Islamophobia, the strengthening of extremist political parties, and the disintegration of European values such as acceptance and tolerance, are likely to create a new generation of disaffected European Muslim youth, many of whom will be prime candidates for Islamic State membership.

European societies must not allow the Islamic State to change the political identity of an entire continent through violence. Along with meticulous police and intelligence work, the bombs in Brussels must be answered with concerted attempts to deepen the social integration of European Muslims, and more broadly to promote cohesion between ethnic and religious groups in Europe. Anything short of that will provide the Islamic State with the same strategic advantage it has enjoyed in the Middle East for nearly a decade.

* Joseph Fitsanakis is Assistant Professor in the Intelligence and National Security Studies program at Coastal Carolina University in the United States.

News you may have missed #893: Intelligence and the attacks in Belgium

BrusselsBelgian Intelligence Services ‘Overwhelmed and Outnumbered’. Tuesday’s deadly attacks on Brussels airport and a metro station, which left at least 30 people dead, demonstrate that the Belgian security forces are overwhelmed and outnumbered by the threat posed by radical Islamists, experts say. Belgium’s security services are not so much incompetent, say experts, as understaffed—that leaves them outnumbered by the high number of suspected radical Islamists, some home-grown and some who have traveled to Syria and back.

Belgian intelligence service seen as weak link in Europe. Following the Paris attacks last November, it became apparent that the real intelligence failure had not been French but Belgian. Before those attacks one of the Belgian intelligence services, Surete de L’Etat, had only 600 personnel to keep tabs on 900 “persons of interest”, many of them potential jihadis who have travelled to Syria and Iraq. Apart from the lack of capacity, the Belgian intel services also lack the capability to deal with an internal ISIS threat.

Belgium feared tragedy was coming but couldn’t stop it. Belgium feared tragedy was coming but couldn’t stop it. Belgium has been trying to fight a growing threat with a relatively small security apparatus. Although Brussels is the diplomatic capital of the world, Belgian state security has only about 600 employees (the exact figure is classified information). Its military counterpart, meanwhile, the Adiv, has a similar number. That makes just over a thousand intelligence officers to secure a country that hosts not just Nato and the EU institutions but countless other organisations.

Paris attack mastermind evaded Athens police raid in January

Abdelhamid AbaaoudThe man who masterminded November’s Islamist attacks in Paris was based in Athens, and last January managed to escape arrest during a joint Greek-Belgian police operation aimed at capturing him. Moroccan-born Abdelhamid Abaaoud, who had lived in Brussels for years, died in a gun battle with French police on November 18, just days after the multiple attacks in Paris that killed 130 people and injured hundreds. It is believed that the perpetrators of the attacks, who were based in Belgium, were guided and directed by Abaaoud. He, however, was not based in Belgium, but in Athens, Greece. It was from there that he directed the Islamist cells, mostly by phone, according to the BBC.

Citing “a Belgian anti-terrorism source” the BBC said on Tuesday that Belgian and Greek authorities were aware of Abaaoud’s general whereabouts and were able to trace some of his phone calls to Islamist militants in Belgium. Eventually, a senior Belgian law enforcement official traveled to Athens to help coordinate a Greek police operation aimed at capturing Abaaoud. By that time, the Moroccan-born militant had been sentenced by a Paris court to 20 years imprisonment in absentia for his role in at least four planned attacks in France —all of which had been foiled by police. Upon capture, Greek authorities planned to extradite Abaaoud to France, where he would serve his sentence. However, the militant was able to get away, though the BBC said that the circumstances of his escape remain unclear. According to the report, an Algerian associate off Abaaoud was arrested during the operation in Athens and was extradited to Belgium.

Abaaoud was not the only Islamic State-linked militant known to have operated in Greece. The two suicide bombers who tried to enter the Stade de France in Paris on November 13 had entered the European Union through the Greek island of Leros, after crossing the Aegean by boat from Turkey. Meanwhile, another of Abaaoud’s associates, Belgian-born Frenchman Salah Abdeslam, whose current whereabouts are unknown, is believed to have traveled by ferry from Italy to Greece in August.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 10 December 2015 | Permalink

Belgium launches official probe into alleged German-US espionage

BelgacomThe Belgian government has announced the start of an official investigation into allegations that the country’s tele- communications networks were spied on by a consortium of German and American intelligence agencies. A press release issued Friday by the Belgian Ministry of Justice said the minister, Koen Geens, had authorized an examination of claims of espionage by the United States National Security Agency and Germany’s Bundesnach-richtendienst (BND). The statement was referring to EIKONAL, an alleged collaboration between the NSA and the BND, which was revealed last month by Austrian politician Peter Pilz. Pilz told a press conference in Bern, Switzerland, that EIKONAL had targeted European telecommunications carriers for at least four years, from 2005 to 2008. The governments of Switzerland and the Netherlands have already launched their own investigations into EIKONAL.

After speaking with Pilz, Belgian politician Stefaan Van Hecke told Belgian media last month that the BND-NSA consortium had penetrated the network of Proximus, the mobile subsidiary of Belgacom, Belgium’s national telecommunications carrier. Speaking anonymously about the investigation, a Belgian official told the country’s largest French-language newspaper, Sud Presse, that if the alleged espionage is confirmed, it would have “not only legal implications, but will also affect relations between Belgium, Germany and the US”. A Justice Ministry spokeswoman said on Friday that if the allegations of espionage were confirmed “the government would take appropriate action”, but she refused to elaborate.

IntelNews regulars will remember the last time Belgacom surfaced in the news: in 2013, we reported that the company’s technicians had detected an “unidentified virus” that had infected several dozen mainframe computers. The virus specifically targeted telecommunications traffic carried by Belgacom’s international subsidiaries in Africa and the Middle East. Belgium’s Federal Prosecutor’s Office said at the time that the malware’s complexity, coupled with its grand scale, “pointed towards international state-sponsored cyber espionage”.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 8 June 2015 | Permalink: https://intelnews.org/2015/06/08/01-1710/

Brussels Jewish museum shooting spree ‘could be tied to intelligence’

Shooting aftermathBy JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org
Belgian police investigating last weekend’s shooting spree at a Jewish heritage center in Brussels do not rule out the possibility that the attack may have been part of an intelligence operation directed against Israeli agents. The incident occurred on Saturday at the Musee Juif de Belgique, located in the heart of the Belgian capital. A man wearing a dark-colored jacket, baseball cap and sunglasses walked in the museum in broad daylight, pulled a Kalashnikov rifle out of a bag, and opened fire, killing three people. A fourth person remains in critical condition. Observers initially classified the shooting as an anti-Semitic attack. There is speculation, however, that the bloody assault may have been a targeted assassination that was part of a wider intelligence war between Israel, Iran, and Lebanese-based Shiite militant group Hezbollah. Several counterterrorism experts, including Claude Moniquet, Co-Director of the European Strategic Intelligence and Security Center, have expressed the view that the shooter appeared to be a trained professional. Referring to publicly available surveillance footage of the shooting, Moniquet said that the perpetrator of the attack, who remains at large, behaved as “an unemotional murderer, someone who had already witnessed death and perhaps killed before”. Moniquet’s comments came shortly after an article by Amir Oren, military affairs correspondent for Israeli daily Ha’aretz, in which he suggested that the attack may have been an act of retaliation by Iranian or Hezbollah operatives, who have been engaged in a lengthy tit-for-tat war with Israeli intelligence since at least 2009. Oren noted that two of the victims of the attack, Emmanuel and Mira Riva , were civil service accountants who had spent years in government service. Read more of this post

News you may have missed #857 (hacking edition)

Mossad sealBy IAN ALLEN | intelNews.org
►►UK spies hacked Belgian phone company using fake LinkedIn page. British spies hacked into the routers and networks of a Belgian telecommunications company Belgacom by tricking its telecom engineers into clicking on malicious LinkedIn and Slashdot pages, according to documents released by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. The primary aim, reports the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel, which obtained the documents, was to compromise the GRX router system that BICS controlled, in order to intercept mobile phone traffic that got transmitted by the router.
►►Indonesian hackers behind attack on Australian spy service website. Indonesian hackers are believed to have brought down the website of the Australian Secret Intelligence Service, Australia’s leading spy agency. The page was not working on Monday afternoon after hackers launched a “denial of service” attack. A “404 not found” message typically appears when a website crashes under a “denial of service” attack. The cyber attack is reportedly a response to revelations that Australia had been spying on its closest neighbor through its Jakarta embassy.
►►Hamas blasts alleged Mossad website. Hamas officials released a warning about a website called Holol (“solutions”), claiming it is a ruse set up by Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency to recruit Gazans as informants. The website’s “Employment” page states, “due to our connections with the Israeli Civil Administration, we can help you bypass the bureaucratic tape and procedural processes which prevent you from leaving Gaza”. The site also offers Israeli medical assistance, “due to connections with the Ministry of Health and the Israeli Civil Administration”. Palestinians interested in contacting the website’s officials are asked to provide their full name, telephone number, email, topic of inquiry, and an explanation of why they are asking for help. Last month, Lebanese group Hezbollah accused the Mossad of being behind a website seeking information on Hezbollah’s intelligence wing.

Israel arrests Belgian citizen for ‘spying for Iran’

Alex MansBy JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org
A Belgian citizen has been arrested in Israel on suspicion of spying on behalf of the Islamic Republic of Iran. The man, Alex Mans, was arrested two weeks ago, but the Israeli government kept the incident under wraps until Sunday. Israeli media reports state that Mans was arrested by Israeli Police and officers of Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security service. He was reportedly detained at Ben-Gurion International Airport as he was preparing to leave Israel. According to Israeli security officials, Mans made frequent trips to Israel, during which he presented himself as a Belgian investor interested in export opportunities in Israel. He allegedly used his business venture in selling windows and roofing material for commercial buildings in order to establish contacts with businesses in Tel Aviv. But officials at Shin Bet maintain that Mans’ business operations, which included seemingly legitimate websites and social media profiles, served as a cover for his spy activities. These are alleged to have included “intelligence gathering [and support for] terrorism”, as well as efforts to “bypass the embargo on trade and financial transactions with Iran”. Israeli security officials believe that Mans was born in Iran in 1958 and had the name Ali Mansouri. He is thought to have moved to Turkey in 1980, aged 22, where he lived for nearly 20 years. In 1997 he received an immigration visa to Belgium, where he met and married a Belgian citizen and changed his name to Mans. Soon afterwards, however, he divorced, and in 2007 he moved back to Iran, where he married a local woman. According to Israeli media reports, Mans told Shin Bet interrogators that he was approached in 2012 by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and offered up to $1 million to spy on Israel on behalf of the Iranian government. He reportedly agreed and was handled by Haji Mustafa, of the IRGC’s Special Operations Unit. Read more of this post

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