The value of catastrophic events is that they can help people face up to problems that are otherwise impossible to address. Maybe this will be the case with Tuesday’s horrific attacks in Brussels.
Europe is facing a security threat that’s unprecedented in its modern history, at a time when its common currency, border security and intelligence-sharing are all under severe stress. If Europe were a stock, a pragmatic investor would sell it, despite the sunk cost and sentimental attachment. Without radical restructuring, it’s an enterprise headed for failure.
The European Union needs to reinvent its security system. It needs to break the stovepipes that prevent sharing information, enforcing borders and protecting citizens. In the months before Tuesday’s terrorist attacks in Brussels, “the system was blinking red,” as George Tenet, the former CIA director, famously described the period before Sept. 11, 2001. Yet Belgium (like pre-9/11 America) couldn’t connect the dots.
The jihadist wave rolling back toward Europe is dizzying: U.S. intelligence agencies estimate that more than 38,000 foreign fighters have traveled to Iraq and Syria since 2012. At least 5,000 of them came from Europe, including 1,700 from France, 760 from Britain, 760 from Germany and 470 from Belgium, according to official data collected by the Soufan Group, a security consulting firm. Relative to its population, Belgium spawned the largest number of these fighters.
Belgian authorities couldn’t find Salah Abdeslam , the logistical planner of the November Paris attacks, for more than 120 days — until they finally nabbed him Friday a few blocks from where he grew up in the Arab enclave of Molenbeek. He was hiding in plain sight. But Belgium’s failure was cooked into the system: The jihadists move stealthily, and the Belgians didn’t collect or share enough of the intelligence that was there. Authorities had allowed Molenbeek to become a haven — more dangerous to Belgium than even the jihadists’ sanctuaries in Syria, Iraq and Libya.
Americans, who are less exposed to the threat, may smugly imagine they can wall themselves off. But the Islamic State’s rampage is more an American failure than a European one. The United States formed a global coalition to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the Islamic State back in September 2014. This strategy hasn’t worked; the Islamic State’s domain has shrunk in Iraq and Syria but expanded elsewhere.
The failure of the U.S.-led coalition to contain the jihadists has left a fragile Europe exposed to terrorism and social upheaval. President Obama hopes that history will affirm his prudent policy, but this view is surely harder to maintain after the Paris and Brussels attacks.
How could the United States and Europe develop a more effective strategy to combat the Islamic State? It would begin with truly shared intelligence and military command. After the shock of Pearl Harbor, the top leadership of the United States and Britain gathered in Washington in December 1941 for the “Arcadia Conference.” Though remembered for the personal bond between Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, its greatest achievement was a unified command that swept aside petty jealousies within the U.S. and British militaries and between the two nations. Once this alliance was struck, eventual victory was inevitable, as Churchill said.
The obstacles to success against the Islamic State are similar. The intelligence services of European nations vary in competence and aggressiveness. Experts say that Britain and France have strong spy agencies; Germany’s is competent but afraid to level with its public; the rest are relatively weak, and there is no Europe-wide spy agency.
Europe wants more “product” from America’s intelligence Leviathan, but less collection. Americans and Europeans sometimes act as though they’re on different teams. This was the path to Brussels.
“There’s a general recognition among intelligence professionals that the services have to cooperate more, and that the U.S. should take the lead in bringing them together,” argues Michael Allen, former staff director of the House Intelligence Committee.
Intelligence strategies that worked against al-Qaeda may not succeed with this adversary. The Islamic State leaves few digital signals. More “human intelligence” — real spies daring to penetrate the enemy camp — is essential, however risky. Another answer may be the application of “machine learning” to big data sets to yield essential leads: Who’s likely to be recruited? What are the likely targets? What’s the best way to disrupt potential adversaries?
European intelligence services must combine forces with the United States and with each other. The West needs a new Arcadia Conference to build a partnership to contain the Islamic State as it plots the next Brussels-style attacks.