Was Brussels an Intelligence Failure?

Since the attacks in Paris, Belgium was on the 2nd- highest threat allert
Since the attacks in Paris, Belgium was on the 2nd- highest threat allert

Political Landscape, State Dysfunctionality Contributed to Possible Intelligence Failures

Living in Belgium always felt somewhat surreal.

There was the time the country did not have a functioning government during two years. You had the endless political insults traded between the French and the Flemish regions — that one region eroded the very concept of Belgium, that the other side was profiteering, even the personal quality of ministers would differ depending on the parties.

Almost every law student in Belgium needs to know all the country’s governments. The right answer is somewhere north of 8, with Brussels counting at least 4 of them (yes, you read that right, 4).

It would all be amusing were it not that for years, security experts have decried the lack of functionality within Belgium’s security services due to exactly the way Belgium’s politics define the state.

There is no sole security or intelligence supervising power with functional capabilities. Rather, responsibilities are split between regions, municipalities, legal requirements, and rival departments. Famously, there is a rivalry between the intelligence services of the Defense Ministry, and the Interior Ministry. According to news reports, personal animosity between their agency heads ran high.

And that is just one example.

Today, both the interior and justice minister presented their resignation. Although the prime minister did not accept it, both ministers acknowledged that grave mistakes were made, after if became clear during the night that Turkey had warned Belgium about one of the terrorists.

To make matters worse, Israel’s Channel 2 reported on the same day that Israeli security experts assessing safety at Zaventem in the context of EL AL operations had warned about serious security shortcomings.

These warnings were left unheeded.

For now, it is yet too early to have a clear picture of what went wrong in Belgium. A parliamentary commission has been set up.

Two terrorists are still at large here. Will the intelligence services find them on time? Without doubt, they are all working overtime. However, wether the right questions are being asked, and the right pieces of intelligence are being put together can be doubted, in light of the track record.

Meanwhile, Brussels and the country are picking up the patterns of normality. Concert halls are packed, trains are back on schedule, offices are full. Only the large crowds in front of the old Stock exchange and the satellite cars of the international networks remind to the extraordinary times we are now in.

However, Belgium’s intelligence services did not realise that prior to 22/03 for them it already were extraordinary times; times were business as usual could carry a high cost.

Follow on Twitter @jorgevs

About the Author
Jorge Vanstreels covers from Brussels the Middle East and European Union foreign policy for a variety of publications, including EuropeanPublicAffairs.eu. Travelling widely throughout the region, his current research focuses on the Jihadist threat in Europe and in the Arab world; another major focus is the ongoing Israel-Palestine issue, which he has followed for years with accurate, objective reporting featuring stories from both sides. Follow on Twitter @Jorgevs
Related Topics
Related Posts