Brussels attacks: Belgian intelligence service seen as weak link in Europe

EU nations need to undertake systematic reform of their intelligence services

At the time of writing, Islamic State (Isis) had claimed responsibility for the suicide and bomb attacks in Brussels Zaventum airport and Maelbeek metro station which left 34 dead and over 185 injured.

The Belgian government had warned of further attacks and declared three days of mourning to remember the dead.

With the dust still to settle on events, one must be cautious in offering analysis of the attacks. Nevertheless, they do point to the need of EU nations to undertake systematic reform of their intelligence services in the wake of the rising threat from jihadi terrorism.

Following the Paris attacks last November, it became apparent that the real intelligence failure had not been French but Belgian. Before those attacks one of the Belgian intelligence services, Surete de L’Etat, had only 600 personnel to keep tabs on 900 “persons of interest”, many of them potential jihadis who have travelled to Syria and Iraq.


Given the fact that some of these require 24-hour surveillance, the under-resourcing of this service is nothing short of shocking. In the wake of the Paris attacks its budget has risen 20 per cent to a modest €50 million.

But apart from the lack of capacity, the Belgian intel services also lack the capability to deal with an internal Isis threat. Last week a Belgian counter-terrorism official admitted to a Buzzfeed journalist: “We just don’t have the people…we don’t have the infrastructure to properly investigate or monitor hundreds of individuals suspected of terror links…It’s literally an impossible situation.”

The destruction of the Brussels-based Isis cells responsible for the Paris attack, and the seizure of their main logistician, Saleh Abdeslam, in the latter’s Mollenbeek district last Friday, provided some hope that, when assisted by US electronic tracking assets, the Belgian and French intelligence services could make significant progress against terrorist networks.

However, Belgian intelligence is viewed as the “weak link” by other nations’ intelligence services. And in the EU you are as only as strong as your weakest link.

Fight abroad

The sources of Belgium’s problem are manyfold. The high number of Belgian jihadis (440 at the last count from a Muslim population of over 650,000) who have gone to fight abroad is notable.

The oft-cited deprivation of the Mollenbeek district in Brussels is another, with its 30 per cent unemployment rate, high levels of disengagement, and a large Muslim population. Crime levels are also high. Numerous jihadi terrorists, including Abdeslam, have lived here.

However, the real problem has been the failure of the under-resourced Belgian intelligence services to develop relationships with this community. Some disenchanted locals in Mollenbeek are known for their suspicion of the police and their attitude of never snitching on a community member, often for fear of reprisal. This, of course, aids criminals, but also forms part of a social fabric which terrorists can manipulate to their advantage.

In counter-terror operations you need human intelligence (humint) to complement and direct intelligence gathered from telecommunications (sigint). The Belgians struggle to develop humint sources and their importance was highlighted by the fact that Abdeslam was able to remain on the run for over four months in and around Brussels before a tip-off led to his arrest. Without relationships with the community, the Belgian intelligence services are unlikely to quickly disrupt the networks supporting these attackers.

Another major part of this problem is Belgium’s Byzantine bureaucracy and numerous police forces, a result of deep political divisions.

These issues need to be addressed for Belgian intelligence capacity to increase, but they will take time.

Conducted correctly, the intelligence cycle consists of five processes. Planning and the direction of intelligence assets starts the cycle; collection of information follows; then processing and exploitation of this information; analysis and production of intelligence; and finally the dissemination of intelligence. The recent attacks in Europe have revealed many problems across this cycle in the way Europe conducts its intelligence operations.

Firstly, across all the processes in the intelligence cycle most European nations’ intelligence and security services remain highly functionally segregated.

For example, the French intelligence and security services have not centralised like the British or US; their eight services are still functionally divided, curtailed by rivalry, and therefore do not share information to the same degree.

Lack of coherence

A very senior former EU intelligence source told me recently that, upon meeting the heads of these services, they were told that it marked the first time they were in a room together. Improvements have been made since, but the story is indicative of the lack of coherence at the centre of France’s intelligence operations.

Indeed, numerous EU nations’ intelligence and security services still suffer from a lack of centralisation. This is perhaps the most fundamental structural problem as it highlights that information is not being shared between national agencies, let alone between EU nations.

More gradually, intelligence sharing between EU nations – and with the US – is in need of an overhaul. Politically this has traditionally been highly problematic, with individual nations understandably much happier to share information bilaterally than with the EU as a whole.

Pre-existing arrangements such as the informal Club of Berne, which shares intelligence across the EU, can be enhanced in numerous areas.

The lesson of many intelligence failures is that someone somewhere had information that could have prevented them.

Better intelligence integration and co-operation is needed if European nations are to do this effectively. Patrick Bury is a security and defence analyst