The lapses and institutional dysfunction that preceded Tuesday’s terrorist assault on Brussels will be familiar to anyone who has studied the attacks of September 2001 in New York and Washington. Intelligence leads that could have led to the bombers were misplaced or overlooked. Multiple police and intelligence agencies failed to cooperate with each other. Airport security measures were lax.
However, Belgium’s problems in fighting the Islamic State are far more profound than those faced by U.S. authorities, 15 years ago or now. The terrorist threat emanates not just from a Middle Eastern base but also from a domestic Muslim community that is isolated and estranged from an already fractured society. Hundreds of its members have traveled to join the Islamic State, and scores have returned in what may be a systematic effort by the jihadists to wage war from inside Europe.
Europe, in turn, has Belgium’s problems on a larger scale. Efforts to pool intelligence across the European Union have failed, even when it comes to something as simple as a common border watch list. There are analogues of Brussels’s troubled, largely Muslim Molenbeek district in cities across Western Europe. Governments are at odds over basic questions, from how freely to accept asylum seekers from Syria to whether mass electronic surveillance is an appropriate counterterrorism measure.
Europe also lacks the ability to destroy the bases of the terrorists, which the United States was able to do by invading Afghanistan. Instead it must look to a U.S.-led coalition to eliminate the Islamic State — and a late-tenure president who has stiffly resisted suggestions that the military campaign be accelerated.
The relative good news is that some of these problems can be remediated relatively quickly, if the political will exists. A continental counterterrorism agency with operational authority to share information and manage threats should be established. German politicians, among others, should set aside concerns about allowing U.S. intelligence agencies to use their unique electronic capabilities to identify threats without violating the privacy of individuals. Belgium, which the terrorists have made a base, must expand its security forces and break down the barriers among them.
The more difficult challenge will be addressing the poverty and isolation of domestic Muslim communities, a task that Belgium, France and several other countries have dodged or mismanaged for years. The remedies start with the provision of jobs and extend to better education, community policing and the combating of both pro- and anti-Muslim extremists.
Unfortunately, many European governments are headed in the wrong direction. In Britain, which will hold an ill-advised referendum in June on whether to leave the European Union, the Brussels attacks have been seized on by pro-exit forces. France has wasted energy on a polarizing and largely symbolic debate about whether to “denationalize” dual citizens convicted of terrorism. Poland and other Eastern European nations are citing Brussels as a pretext to reject Muslim asylum seekers.
The United States has a vital interest in Europe’s survival as a prosperous and democratic union, which is why the isolationist stance of Donald Trump is so dangerous. Europe could use U.S. help in coordinating counterterrorism operations; it also needs more aggressive action to reduce the Islamic State’s bases in the Middle East. President Obama should reconsider the pace of U.S. operations, given the potential cost to Europe of delay.
Editorial by The Washington Post