Could Belgium Have Prevented The Brussels Attacks?


The attacks this afternoon in Brussels shook Europe, sending cities and countries alike into states of emergency and lockdown, yet questions have been raised about why Belgium was not already on the highest level of alert and whether this would have helped to reduce the number of casualties.

Before this afternoon’s events, the Brussels region was at alert level 3. The second highest level, this means that OCAD (the Belgian governent body that analyses security threats) has determined that there is a “possible and probable” threat against a person, group or event. At this level of alert, a variety of additional security measures are implemented within the country, including regular street patrols by armed forces, as well as an increased security presence at large scale public events and a military presence around transport infrastructure such as metro stations. By contrast, in the immediate aftermath of the Paris attacks last November, Brussels was at alert level 4, which is the highest level of alert, meaning that the threat to members of the public is “serious and imminent”.

There have been accusations that the Belgian security services were not adequately prepared for such a series of incidents. Matthew Levitt, a counter-terrorism expert and director of the Washington Insitute’s Stein Programme on Counterintelligence, who had met with the Belgian government just last week, told Business Insider that Belgium has only just begun to terms with the number of Jihadists within its borders:

Belgians have a really big problem because they have the largest number per capita of western foreign fighters from any country… The numbers are simply overwhelming.

Only in the last year have they really come to grips with the fact that this presents not just a problem of [radicalized]people who are returning from other countries but also those who … never leave in the first place and can carry out attacks at home.

A 2015 report by the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation found that Belgium had produced 40 fighters for Sunni militant groups per 1 million people, a figure which is higher per capita than in any other European country. A further report from strategic security firm The Soufan Group found that over 400 Belgians have gone to Syria and Iraq to join extremist groups, and that more than 100 of this number are thought to have since returned to Belgium.

There have also been accusations that the fragmented nature of Belgium’s administrative and political system led to a lack of communication between often overlapping government agencies, making it more difficult to transmit and share crucial security information due to the multiple languages, parliaments and governments which are involved. A number of international media outlets picked up on this, portraying the state as a “dysfunctional country with grotesquely complex and failing state structures” where terrorist groups were able to operate undetected.

The level at which Belgium’s intelligence agencies are legally authorised to operate has also been cited as a potential reason as to why the attacks were so successful. Belgium’s laws surrounding intelligence are much more specific than some larger European states, with strict limitations on which espionage tools and techniques can be used and the situations in which they can be used. The lack of personnel working within the country’s intelligence agencies compared to larger European powers has also been suggested as an impediment to the country’s ability to effectively track Jihadist individuals and groups, with one Belgian counter-terrorism officer recently complaining to Buzzfeed News that the huge number of open cases meant most of the country’s security personnel were assigned to ongoing international investigations:

We just don’t have the people to watch anything else and, frankly, we don’t have the infrastructure to properly investigate or monitor hundreds of individuals suspected of terror links, as well as pursue the hundreds of open files and investigations we have…

It’s literally an impossible situation and, honestly, it’s very grave.

What to do next remains a controversial issue. There have been suggestions that greater information sharing and co-operation between EU intelligence agencies would help to reduce the freedom that groups planning such attacks have to move across the continent and conduct logistical operations, while others have suggested that greater federalisation of the Belgian structure of government would have allowed more effective control of the situation within the country. Whatever the thoughts of those in power, Europe looks set to remain on high alert for the forseeable future.





Deputy Editor 2017-18, International Editor 2015-17. Languages graduate interested in Latin America, world news, media and politics.

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