Hard questions

by Lorenzo Piccoli

In the wake of any terrorist attack the first thing to do is mourn the victims and try to defy the dreary ideology of the perpetrators.

The second thing to do is to understand what went wrong. Belgium’s beleaguered security services are once again facing intense scrutiny over how such complex attacks could happen with so much advance warning. Many times already I have spoken of the failings of a country with grotesquely complex state structures and a highly dysfunctional security system. Now those failings are turning nasty as the country finds itself confronting a terrorist infrastructure that has planted deep roots in Belgian society. Only last week, the arrest in Molenbeek of Salah Abdeslam was presented by state officials as a security triumph. Instead, I asked again whether the dynamics of the arrest represented yet another proof that Belgium was a failed state. The terrorist was captured only several hundred metres from his family home and after managing to spend four months on the run.

People who are way more competent than I am have taken the issue a bit further. U.S. officials, for instance, are bashing ‘clueless’, ‘shitty’ Belgian Security Forces for being way too incompetent to handle today’s terror threat. ‘When we have to contact these people or send our guys over to talk to them, we’re essentially talking with people who are—I’m just going to put it bluntly—children. These are not pro-active, they’re don’t know what’s going on. They’re in such denial. It’s such a frightening thing to admit their country is being taken over‘. It must be said that Belgium has never had a strong intelligence culture, as it partly relied on safety support from its neighbours; and particularly from France.

In fact, the main issue with Belgian security Forces today is not the lack of infrastructures – although that, too, is a problem – but the lack of interest in coordination. “There have been several statements from intelligence chiefs saying they barely co-operate, and that’s really sad and disturbing at the same time” a senior policy adviser in security studies told the FT todayIf there’s one thing to do now it is to enhance the co-operation of intelligence agencies in Europe.” This utter incapacity is a consequence of the Belgian political establishment, which created and perpetrated such a dysfunctional system with inept chiefs of the police staying in their place in spite of an agonizing situation that was clearly going our of control. Recent figures showed that as many as 562 Belgians have fought in Iraq or Syria. At least 124 hail from Brussels. With a population of 11 million, Belgium has sent more fighters per capita than any country in Europe to the charnel house of the Syrian civil war. Something is clearly going wrong here.

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A list of people (and things) to be blamed for this situation had been published already in November last year. Among them you will find the chief of the police and several politicians. Many of these people are still in power. These are the people who deserve our blame and might give us a clue of what went wrong, an why.