The two brothers – Ibrahim el-Bakraoui and Khalid el-Bakraoui – who carried out the terrorist attacks in Brussels last week were wanted since a March 15th raid linked them to an ISIS terror cell. The brothers had previously been arrested in 2010 for attempted robbery and 2011 for attempted carjacking, both involving firearms. What failure of intelligence allowed these marginalized criminals to radicalize, join a terrorist cell, become exposed as such, and then still carry out a terrorist attack a week later?
The chain of intelligence is normally divided into gathering, analysis, and consumption. As the ongoing investigation makes clear, errors occurred at each of these stages of intelligence. Belgian intelligence was slow in understanding exactly the means the ISIS operatives had acquired and the extent of planning and coordination of these cells, and were reluctant to cooperate with local and extra-territorial partners to find and arrest the brothers after the March 15th raid.
European states like France, Belgium, Germany, and the United Kingdom must develop embedded, deep intelligence that is founded on value-based relationships with their Muslim communities in order to prevent future terror attacks. These cells do not materialize in a vacuum. Marginalized and discontented Muslim communities can be found across Europe, and European governments have heretofore relied more heavily on traditional surveillance from the outside than they have on actually entering into these communities, hearing from those that thread them together, and understanding their politics. The great majority of these communities are peaceful and have legitimate complaints. They do not welcome extremists and criminals, who often make it harder for them the next day on the train or at the market.
It might surprise European intelligence agencies to find how helpful these communities can be in cooperating with them if a relationship already exists. The case of the taxi driver, also from Morocco, who took the Brussels bombers to the airport and then alerted the police, is valuable for reinforcing this insight. If avenues of communication are widened and connections made to the communities that produce or house these terrorists, there are few substitutes for the value cooperation brings.
Rather than solely calling for increased law enforcement patrols of Muslim neighborhoods, policy makers should be advocating for a greater emphasis on network-based human intelligence. By partnering with the very communities most affected by the recent wave of Muslim extremism in Western Europe, governments have an opportunity to provide value to those populations, encouraging people to become stakeholders in society. This advocates less of a reliance on armed patrols and wiretaps, and more on people to people interaction. This approach is also scalable, and should be expanded from a single neighborhood or city to across the nation, and through security sharing partnerships, across Europe.
Former CIA director Michael Hayden poignantly pointed out last week that the United States does not have to deal with radicalized communities, but rather radicalized individuals. Belgium and other European states can work towards this model of strengthening community integration and focusing in turn on radicalized individuals. Local governments can work to strengthen their Muslim communities and their ability to self-police. This can begin with direct lines between community leadership and local and state leaders. Police departments and intelligence services can recruit in-community, and actively invest in building trust and value based relationships with members of these communities.
While former CIA officer Robert David Steele has called for increased reliance on open sourced intelligence, opposition from the intelligence community has prevented a refocusing of intelligence efforts. The value of open sourced intelligence appreciates when it garners increased cooperation between the state and these distressed communities as well as creating access where there was little before. Although ambitious, a fundamental shift of focus for these European intelligence and security services is necessary to maintain their qualitative advantage and their mandate.
Belgium has nurtured these marginalized communities, producing criminals who become terrorists at the highest per capita rate in the West. This progression was not instantaneous, and the community that produced these terrorists was witness to it. An opportunity for partnership exists here, if states like Belgium can adopt a flexible and attentive intelligence approach to its population.