Belgian government saw terror attack coming so why did it fail to stop it?

Prime Minister Charles Michel holds a press conference after the attacks. EPA/Stephanie LeCocq

It’s no secret that Belgium, and especially Brussels, has been a major hub of Islamic terrorist activity for more than a decade. Belgium provides the highest per capita number of fighters in the Syria conflict of any Western nation.

The events of March 22 are but the latest incident. There was a Belgian connection to the terror attacks in Paris in January and November 2015, and the Jewish Museum in Brussels was attacked by Islamic terrorists in 2014, with three people killed. Yet the Belgian government haplessly continued to ignore the threat in its midst and repeatedly failed to take serious action.

Belgium has been a benign environment for Islamic terrorists. That is a major reason why Brussels was hit with these two major terrorist attacks, which have killed more than 30 and wounded more than 100.

The city was an easy and convenient target thanks to the policies of the Belgian government. While radical Islamists have had a decade to build up an infrastructure in Brussels, the Belgian police and intelligence services remain understaffed and underfunded. Belgium simply does not have enough police and intelligence personnel to deal with the size of the threat.

It is estimated that more than 100 Belgian nationals have returned from fighting in Syria. There, they learned to use weapons and explosives and gained fighting experience. Several of the Paris attackers had returned from Syria to Belgium, yet they were left free to plan their deadly mission. It seems the government did not consider them to be a threat.

Belgian counter-terrorism police are notoriously lax and Belgian police have less authority to conduct surveillance and make arrests than British or French officers. The Belgian authorities can break up one or two cells, but the lax policy towards fighters returning from Syria is a guarantee that Islamic State will be able to quickly rebuild terrorist cells and expand existing cells without much trouble.

Police search a house in Brussels. EPA/Christophe Petit Tisson

It is impossible to protect the public entrances of rail stations or airports from suicide bombers – especially when the attackers are well-organised and well-supported. The only real protection is stopping attacks before they happen.

To do this it is necessary to break the terrorist networks and infrastructure, but that requires a lot of expert police and intelligence work. It takes properly staffed, trained and organised security agencies – and Belgium is well behind in this respect.

The Belgian government needs a dramatic restructuring. It needs to increase its security forces and it must, as a priority, set much tougher counter-terrorism policies, especially to monitor the Islamist groups operating in its cities and deal with jihadis returning from Syria.

Even if the Belgians move quickly to change their security policies the threat will remain high. It takes years to develop adequate security forces. Doing the right thing will cost Belgium a lot of money and take considerable political will. On the other hand, continuing to ignore the Islamist threat will cost more Belgian lives.

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