Belgium knew about Russian bounty offered to Taliban, defense minister says

Belgian German AfghanistanBelgium’s spy services were aware of financial rewards that Russia allegedly offered to the Taliban in exchange for killing American and other Western troops in Afghanistan, according to Belgium’s defense minister. Late last month, three leading American newspapers, The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal alleged that the White House had been briefed about an alleged Russian bounty program that was in existence in Afghanistan. According to the allegations, the Main Directorate of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces, known as GRU, had offered Taliban fighters financial rewards in exchange for killing American and other North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) troops. Both the White House and the Kremlin denied the allegations, with US President Donald Trump dismissing them as “fake news” and “a hoax”.

On Wednesday, Philippe Goffin, who serves as Belgium’s Minister of Foreign Affairs and Minister of Defense, told the Belgian Federal Parliament that his office was aware of the Russian bounty program. The minister was speaking before the parliament’s Committee on National Defense, where he responded to questions from committee members. According to Goffin, he had been briefed on the matter by the General Intelligence and Security Service (SGRS), Belgium’s military intelligence organization. He said the SGRS was “aware of Russian support for the Taliban in Afghanistan” and offered evidence that “confirmed Russian interference there”. He added that the Belgian intelligence services had linked “only one incident” to the Russian bounty program. It had occurred in April of 2019, and had resulted in the deaths of three American soldiers, he said.

Belgium is a founding member of NATO and hosts the alliance’s headquarters in its capital, Brussels. The country until recently participated in the NATO joint force in Afghanistan, but recalled its troops home in May due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 17 July 2020 | Permalink

News you may have missed #907

India External Affairs MinistryPakistan releases two Indian diplomats. Pakistan has released two employees of rival India’s embassy in Islamabad after briefly detaining them in connection with a hit-and-run road accident in the capital. A city police report noted the Indian officials were taken into custody on Monday morning after their “reckless driving” injured a pedestrian. The Indian External Affairs Ministry on Monday summoned the deputy chief of the Pakistani High Commission in New Delhi to protest the detention of its officials and demanded their immediate release. Pakistani authorities familiar with the incident argued the detainees were released to the Indian High Commission in Islamabad within hours because they held diplomatic immunity.

As US intelligence community returns to work, employees confront new anxieties. More US federal employees and contractors in the intelligence community have been gradually returning to their office spaces in the past two weeks. But for IC leadership, “reopening” isn’t only about rearranging office spaces and cobbling together cleaning supplies and hand sanitizer, it’s also about easing the concerns of their employees and contractors who are uneasy or nervous to return to the physical workplace.

Belgian police officer convicted of spying for terrorist network. A police officer in Brussels has been jailed for four years after prosecutors found he had acted as an informant for the brother of a man seen as the mastermind of the Brussels and Paris attacks. The 53-year-old officer with the Brussels North police zone was sentenced to 50 months imprisonment, his lawyers confirmed on Friday.

Malta protests French media claims that its Brussels embassy is bugged by China

25 Rue ArchimedeThe Maltese government has strongly denied allegations, made by a leading French newspaper, that the island nation’s embassy in Brussels is being used by China to spy on European Union institutions. The allegations concern a nine-story building located at 25 Rue Archimede, in one of downtown Brussels’ most desirable areas. The building houses the Embassy of Malta in Belgium, as well as Malta’s Permanent Representation to the European Union. It is conveniently located across the street from Le Berlaymont —the headquarters of the European Commission, which is the European Union’s executive branch. It is also around the corner from the headquarters of the European Council, which operates as the collective presidency of the European Union.

Last Friday, leading French newspaper Le Monde, alleged that China had installed concealed surveillance equipment throughout the building at 25 Rue Archimede. The paper claimed that the Chinese had supplied the funds to buy and refurbish the building as a gift to Malta, a country with which Beijing has had traditionally warm relations since 1972, when Malta became the world’s first nation to formally recognize the People’s Republic of China. The paper also alleged that Belgium’s state security services had long suspected that the building “harbored technical [surveillance] equipment” planted by Chinese intelligence with the aim of spying on nearby European Union facilities located nearby. The report added that the Belgians had previously been initially alerted by British intelligence about the use of 25 Rue Archimede as a “spy tower” by the Chinese.

According to Le Monde, this information had been relayed to the Belgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs by Alain Winants, when he served as Director of Belgium’s State Security Service (SV/SE). However, both Winants and his successor, Jaak Raes, declined to comment when asked by Le Monde. The paper said that the Belgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs also declined an opportunity to comment, saying that “such affairs relate to the state affairs of Belgium”.

Over the weekend, the Maltese government issued a formal statement denying the clams by Le Monde, and protesting the “incorrect allegations” in the paper’s report. Additionally, Maltese officials told local media that the building in question had undergone successive “internal and external audits” by the Maltese Security Service and the European Council, and had been found to be clear of bugs every time. Another Maltese government source said that 80% of the building’s furniture had been “disposed of” in the past two years and replaced with “new furniture procured from Malta”.

Other sources told Maltese media that the allegations in Le Monde could be a form of retaliation against the government of Malta for seeking to withdraw from Operation IRINI, a European Union naval operation aimed at enforcing an international weapons embargo imposed on Libya. According to these claims, the embargo is preventing weapons from Turkey from reaching the United Nations-recognized Libyan Government of National Accord. If the embargo were to be lifted, or not thoroughly implemented, it could potentially strengthen the Libyan government, and thus hamper the efforts of Libyan warlord General Khalifa Haftar. Haftar is backed by France, among other Western powers.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 18 May 2020 | Permalink

Belgian university shuts down Chinese-funded institute due to espionage claims

Xinning SongOne of Belgium’s leading universities has decided to shut down a research institute funded by the Chinese government, after the Belgian intelligence service accused its director of spying on behalf of Beijing. The news was announced on Wednesday by the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB), one of Belgium’s leading higher-education institutions. The Confucius Institute has been operated at VUB since 2006. But the university’s board of directors now says that it will not be renewing its contact with the Institute in 2020.

The Confucius Institute at VUB is one of more than 500 such research bodies that the government of China has funded around the world since 2004. Their mission is to promote the language and culture of China to the world. However, numerous academic institutions in Japan, Canada, and a number of European countries, have recently shut down Confucius Institute branches, following allegations that their staff members carried out espionage tasks, or tried to stifle academic research critical of China. In Europe alone, the University of Lyon in France, Stockholm University in Sweden, and Holland’s University of Leiden have all recently terminated their cooperation with the Confucius Institute.

In October of this year, Belgium’s State Security Service (VSSE) concluded that the VUB Confucius Institute director, Dr. Song Xinning, carried out espionage tasks on behalf of the Chinese government. As a result, the Belgian government refused to renew the work visa of Dr. Song, who had lived in Belgium for over a decade. Additionally, the Chinese academic was barred from entering the European Union’s Schengen Area —which comprises 26 European countries— for eight years.

Dr. Song alleges that his work visa was revoked after he refused to cooperate with an American diplomat stationed in Brussels. He also denies that he was ever in the service of Chinese intelligence or the Chinese state. But the VUB appears to have sided with the Belgian government in this dispute. The university annulled its contract with Dr. Song and, as of January, will be terminating its relationship with the Confucius Institute. In a press statement published online, VUB Rector Caroline Pauwels said that the work of the Confucius Institute did not meet the “current policy objectives” of the university.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 12 December 2019 | Permalink

Senior Belgian counterintelligence officer arrested on suspicion of spying for Russia

NATO HQ BrusselsA senior counterintelligence official in Belgium’s external intelligence service is under house arrest on suspicion of sharing classified documents with Russian spies, according to a Belgian newspaper. Additionally, the chief of the agency’s counterintelligence directorate has been barred from his office while an internal investigation is underway on allegations that he illegally destroyed government documents. These allegations surfaced last Thursday in a leading article in De Morgen, a Flemish-language daily based in Brussels.

Citing anonymous sources from the General Information and Security Service —Belgium’s military intelligence agency— the paper said that the arrestee has the equivalent rank of major in the General Intelligence and Security Service. Known as GISS, the agency operates as the Belgian equivalent of the United States Central Intelligence Agency or Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service —better known as MI6. GISS officers collect information abroad and are not permitted to operate within Belgium’s borders. The man, a career counterintelligence official, is suspected of having passed secrets to Russia with the help of a woman who claims to be Serbian, but who is in fact believed to be an operative for Russian intelligence. It is not known whether the compromised information included secrets involving the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, of which Belgium is a founding member. In the same article, De Morgen also said that Clement Vandenborre, who serves as chief of GISS’s counterintelligence directorate, has been barred from his office while an investigation is taking place into allegations of mismanagement. He is also accused of having shredded classified government documents without permission. It is not believed that this case is connected with the alleged Russian penetration.

De Morgen quoted a spokesperson for Belgium’s Ministry of Defense, who confirmed that an investigation into alleged foreign espionage targeting a GISS employee was underway, but added that “no comment” would be made on the subject so as “not to hinder” the probe. Ironically, German newspaper Die Welt am Sonntag reported last week that the European Union’s diplomatic agency warned officials in Belgium to watch out for “hundreds of spies” from various foreign countries, including from Russia and China. The warning, issued by the European Union’s diplomatic agency, the European External Action Service (EEAS), said that “approximately 250 Chinese and 200 Russian spies” were operating in Brussels.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 18 February 2019 | Permalink

Hundreds of foreign spies in Brussels, European diplomatic agency warns

European Commission buildingThe European Union’s diplomatic agency has warned officials who are active in Belgium to watch out for “hundreds of spies” from various foreign countries, according to a German news report. The report appeared last weekend in Germany’s Welt am Sonntag newspaper, which cited a report from the European External Action Service (EEAS). Based in Brussels, the EEAS operates as the European Union’s diplomatic agency and is headed by Federica Mogherini, an Italian former government minister who has been serving as the European Union’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy since 2014.

According to Die Welt, the EEAS estimates that “approximately 250 Chinese and 200 Russian spies” are operating in Brussels. Most of these intelligence officers are allegedly embedded in their countries’ embassies, trade missions, cultural centers and other outreach facilities in the Belgian capital. There are also many intelligence operatives from Western agencies, including those of the United States, as well as from Iran, Turkey and Morocco, among other foreign nations. The report in Die Welt adds that the EEAS advised European Union diplomats to avoid certain establishments in the European Quarter of Brussels, which are believed to be heavily frequented by international spies. Among them are “a popular steakhouse and café” that are “within walking distance of the Berlaymont building” —the headquarters of the European Commission. The same building houses the offices of the EEAS.

Such warnings are not new. In June of last year, Peter Gridling, head of Austria’s main counterintelligence agency, said during a rare public appearance that Vienna —the spy capital of the world— no longer topped the list of preferred destinations for the world’s spies. He said that the Austrian capital had been overtaken by Brussels as the spy capital of Europe and added that, according to his agency’s calculations, there was a greater density of spies in Brussels than in any other European capital. When asked to specify the number of foreign intelligence operatives that are active in Vienna, Gridling said it was “in the neighborhood of hundreds of people, but certainly fewer than 1,000”. In 2012, Alain Winants, former Director of Belgium’s State Security Service (SV/SE), claimed that Brussels was home to more spies than any other city in the world.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 12 February 2019 | Permalink

Israel says it foiled Iranian-sponsored bomb attack in France

MossadIsrael helped foil an alleged Iranian-sponsored bomb attack in Paris, which involved arrests of several Iranian agents and at least one diplomat in France, Belgium and Germany, according to media reports. As intelNews reported earlier this month, the arrests began on June 30, when members of Belgium’s Special Forces Group arrested a married Belgian couple of Iranian descent in Brussels. The couple were found to be carrying explosives and a detonator. On the following day, July 1, German police arrested an Iranian diplomat stationed in Iran’s embassy in Vienna, Austria. On the same day, a fourth person, who has not been named, was arrested by authorities in France, reportedly in connection with the three other arrests.

All four individuals appear to have been charged with a foiled plot to bomb the annual conference of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) that took place on June 30 in Paris. The NCRI is led by Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK), a militant group with roots in radical Islam and Marxism. The MEK was designated as a terrorist group by the European Union and the United States until 2009 and 2012 respectively. But it has since been reinstated in both Brussels and Washington, reportedly because it provides the West with a vehicle to subvert the Iranian government.

On Thursday, authorities in Israel announced the lifting of a blanket censorship decree that prevented local media from discussing the country’s role in helping the Europeans foil the alleged bomb attack in Paris. According to Israel’s Channel 2, a private television station based in Jerusalem, the Iranian attack was prevented after the Israeli agency Mossad detected the whereabouts of several suspects involved in it. The Mossad then supplied Germany, Belgium and France with intelligence that led to the arrests of some of those suspects. However, Channel 2 said that the Israeli government did not give a reason for the initial censorship imposed on the country’s media, nor did it explain why it had decided to lift it. On July 4, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appeared to hint that Israel had a role in the foiling of the alleged bomb attack in Paris. Speaking during a commemoration ceremony in Acre, Israel, Netanyahu said it was “no coincidence” that the attack in Paris had been stopped. But the Israeli leader did not expressly indicate that the Mossad had a role in the operation.

Following news of the arrests in Europe, the Iranian government said that it had no connection to the alleged plot in Paris and called the incident a “false flag” operation staged by Tehran’s enemies at home and abroad.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 20 July 2018 | Permalink

Iran sleeper cell agents, including diplomat, arrested in three European countries

National Council of Resistance of IranAn Iranian diplomat and members of what authorities described as an “Iranian sleeper cell” were arrested this week in Belgium, Germany and France, as they were allegedly planning to a bomb a high-level meeting in Paris. The arrests came after a complex investigation by several European intelligence agencies and were announced by Belgium’s Minister of the Interior, Jan Jambon.

The operation against the alleged sleeper cell began on Saturday, June 30, when members of Belgium’s Special Forces Group stopped a Mercedes car in Brussels. The car was carrying a married Belgian couple of Iranian descent, named in media reports as Amir S., 38, and Nasimeh N., 33. According to the Belgian Ministry of the Interior, Nasimeh N. was found to be carrying 500 grams of triacetone triperoxide (TATP) explosive and a detonator inside a toiletries bag. On the following day, Sunday, July 1, German police arrested Assadollah A., an Iranian diplomat stationed in Iran’s embassy in Vienna, Austria. According to reports, the diplomat was driving a rental car in the southeastern German state of Bavaria, heading to Austria. On the same day, a fourth person, who has not been named, was arrested by authorities in France, reportedly in connection with the other three arrests.

The four detainees were in contact with each other and were allegedly working for the Iranian government. All four have been charged with an alleged foiled plot to bomb the annual conference of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) that took place last Saturday, June 30, in a Paris suburb. The National Council of Resistance of Iran is a France-based umbrella group of Iranian dissidents, led by Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK), a militant group that has roots in radical Islam and Marxism. Between 1970 and 1976, the group assassinated six American officials in Iran and in 1970 tried to kill the United States ambassador to the country. It initially supported the Islamic Revolution of 1979, but later withdrew its support, accusing the government of Ayatollah Khomeini of “fascism”. It continued its operations from exile, mainly from Iraq, where its armed members were trained by the Palestine Liberation Organization and other Arab leftist groups.

Until 2009, the European Union and the United States officially considered the MEK a terrorist organization. But the group’s sworn hatred of the government in Iran brought it close to Washington after the 2003 US invasion of Iraq. By 2006, the US military was openly collaborating with MEK forces in Iraq, and in 2012 the group was dropped from the US Department of State’s list of foreign terrorist organizations. Today the group enjoys open protection from the EU and the US. According to Belgian authorities, the four members of the Iranian sleeper cell were planning to bomb the MEK-sponsored NCRI meeting in Paris under instructions by the Iranian government. Conference participants included over 30 senior US officials, including US President Donald Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, who addressed the meeting. Stephen Harper, Canada’s former prime minister, also spoke at the conference.

Speaking in Brussels this week, Belgium’s Interior Minister Jambon praised the country’s intelligence, security and law enforcement agencies for foiling the alleged bomb plot in Paris. But Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, dismissed claims of an Iranian sleeper cell as “fake news” and described reports of a foiled bomb attack as “a sinister false flag plot”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 06 July 2018 | Permalink

More spies now in Brussels than Vienna, Austrian intelligence chief says

Peter GridlingThe head of Austria’s counterintelligence agency has said that Brussels has now replaced Vienna as Europe’s spy capital. For nearly a decade, this blog has published expert commentary that points to the Austrian capital being the world’s busiest spy den. In 2009, German broadsheet Die Welt explained that Vienna had “the highest density of [foreign intelligence] agents in the world”. The reasons for this are partly historic: during the Cold War, the center of Vienna was located less than an hour’s drive from the Iron Curtain, making it a central location for East-West spy intrigue. Additionally, Austria boasted then, and boasts today, an efficient transportation network that connects it to both Western and Eastern Europe.

Furthermore, Vienna hosts the headquarters of several important international agencies, including the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and the Organization for Security and Co-Operation in Europe (OSCE). This gives dozens of countries the opportunity to station in Vienna large numbers of diplomats, in addition to those who staff their embassies there. Consequently, it is estimated that the Austrian capital today hosts nearly 20,000 foreign diplomats, which is a substantial number for such a small country with a permanent population of less than 9 million. Experts believe that around half of these foreign diplomats are in fact connected to a foreign intelligence agency.

But in a rare public appearance on Thursday, Peter Gridling, head of Austria’s main counterintelligence agency, said that Vienna no longer topped the list of preferred destinations for the world’s spies. Gridling heads the Vienna-based Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution and Counterterrorism, known as BVT. He was speaking during the official presentation of the BVT’s annual Constitutional Protection Report for 2017, which was held at the headquarters of the Ministry of the Interior. Gridling told reporters that the number of foreign intelligence operatives pretending to be diplomats posted in the Austrian capital remained significant, and that Austria as a whole was still “a favored area of operations” by the world’s intelligence agencies. However, he added that Vienna had now been overtaken by the Belgian capital Brussels as the spy capital of Europe. Gridling said that, according to his agency’s calculations, there was now a greater density of spies in Brussels than in any other European capital.

Gridling thus appears to concur with numerous intelligence experts and practitioners, among them Alain Winants, former Director of Belgium’s State Security Service (SV/SE), who have claimed since 2009 that Brussels is home to more spies than any other city in the world. When asked to specify the number of foreign intelligence operatives that are active in Vienna, Gridling said it was “in the neighborhood of hundreds of people, but certainly fewer than 1,000”. The Austrian counterintelligence chief declined calls to provide further elaboration on the mater.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 29 June 2018 | Permalink

Belgium to probe alleged Spanish espionage against separatist Catalan leader

Carles PuigdemontBelgium will investigate whether Spanish intelligence spied on Carles Puigdemont, the separatist Catalan leader who escaped to Brussels after launching an unsuccessful independence bid last year. Puigdemont, 56, served as president of the Spanish region of Catalonia from January 2016 until October 2017. He was forcibly removed from office by the Spanish government, after he led the government of Catalonia in a unilateral declaration of independence from Spain. As soon as the Catalan Parliament declared that the region was independent, Madrid dissolved it, imposed direct rule on the country’s easternmost province, and declared fresh elections.

Amidst the chaos that ensued, Puigdemont, along with several other leading Catalan separatists, fled to Belgium where he requested political asylum. When it emerged that Puigdemont had fled abroad, Spanish authorities issued a European Arrest Warrant against him, on charges of sedition, rebellion against the state and misusing public funds. Fearing that the Belgian authorities might extradite him to Madrid, Puigdemont soon left for Germany, where he was detained by local police on March 25, 2018. He currently remains in Germany, while German authorities are deciding whether to grant Madrid’s request for his extradition.

Now authorities in Belgium are preparing to launch an investigation into whether Spain’s intelligence services carried out espionage against Puigdemont while he remained on Belgian soil. The investigation will most likely be carried out by the country’s Standing Intelligence Agencies Review Committee. Known broadly as Comité permanent R, the committee is an independent body that oversees the activities of Belgium’s security and intelligence apparatus. The investigation is to be launched as a result of an official parliamentary request submitted by the New Flemish Alliance, Belgium’s largest separatist party, which represents the country’s Dutch-speaking minority. The party has come out in support of Catalan independence and of Puigdemont in particular, and has urged Brussels to grant political asylum to the Catalan separatist leader.

Peter Buysrogge, a leading member of the New Flemish Alliance, said that his party wanted to know whether Spanish intelligence operated in Belgium with or without the knowledge of the Belgian government and intelligence services. He added that his party was especially interested in investigating allegations made in Catalan media that Spanish intelligence operatives followed Puigdemont and even installed a Global Positioning System (GPS) device under his car.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 14 June 2018 | Permalink

Iran sentences professor at Belgian university to death for spying

Ahmadreza DjalaliAn Iranian scientist who works at a university in Belgium has been sentenced to death in Iran, allegedly for spying. According to his family and his employer in Belgium, Dr. Ahmadreza Djalali is currently in prison in Tehran. Dr. Djalali, 45, is professor of disaster medicine at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB), a Dutch-speaking university located in the Belgian capital. For the past few years, Dr. Djalali has been based in Italy, where he teaches in the VUB’s European Master’s program in Disaster Medicine. According to an announcement on the VUB’s website, Dr. Djalali is now awaiting execution, which has been scheduled to take place later this month.

It is believed that the professor was arrested in April of last year, while visiting his family in Iran. But his family in Europe chose not to publicize his arrest, in hopes of getting him released. They spoke to the media only after Dr. Djalali was given a death sentence last week. The reason for the scientist’s arrest has not been made clear, but it is thought to relate to his collaboration with other researchers in Belgium and Italy, some of whom are Israeli citizens. Iran considers Israel an “enemy entity” and does not allow its citizens to interact with Israeli citizens. Officials at VUB claim that Dr. Djalali is has not been involved in political campaigns or discussions, and that his contacts with foreign scientists are solely research-driven.

According to his family, Dr. Djalali has protested his detention by launching hunger strikes on three separate occasions, which have severely affected his health. He also claims that he was not allowed access to lawyers and that he was not given a trial. Instead, he said he was interrogated and forced to sign a confession admitting to an offence that he does not recognize. Iranian authorities have refused comment on the matter.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 07 February 2017 | Permalink

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/