The terrorist threat level in Belgium has “never been higher in all the years I’ve been working on counterterrorism,” Alain Grignard, a senior member of the counterterrorism unit in the Brussels Federal Police, told the CTC Sentinel.
Needless to say, Grignard’s assessment proved correct, as the article was published the same day as the thwarted attack by a gunman on a train traveling between Amsterdam and Paris.
“It boils down to mathematics and it’s all linked to the Syria dynamic,” Grignard continued. “A high number of Belgian extremists have traveled to join jihadi groups in Syria and Iraq. Wannabe Belgian jihadis are still leaving every month. There’s no way of knowing the exact numbers but I can tell you with certainty that at least 300 have traveled—that’s the number we have sufficient evidence to bring charges against. At least 100 have returned to Belgium, but we are under no illusions that there aren’t more we don’t know about. It’s impossible to do surveillance on everybody.”
The suspect in Friday’s thwarted attack was identified as 25-year-old Ayoub El Khazzani, who had lived in Spain for several years before traveling to Syria from France, according to a Spanish counterterrorism source, reports AFP. The Moroccan national had been flagged by Spanish authorities as a potential extremist, but like Grignard said, it’s impossible to constantly monitor everyone on terror watchlists. This is one of the monumental challenges associated with counterterrorism work, says Raffaello Pantucci of the Royal United Services Institute in London, according to AFP.
“The authorities know about a lot of people but not which ones will actually launch an attack,” he said.
“It’s a very resource-intensive job. You need three shifts with several people, and equipment and vehicles, to watch someone 24 hours a day. Intelligence agencies just aren’t big enough to do that for everyone.”
Belgium, where Khazzani boarded the train in the capital Brussels, is thought to have the highest per capita number of people in Europe leaving to fight in the Middle East.
The threat was underlined when a militant cell linked to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group was busted in Belgium in January, thwarting an alleged plot to attack police.
But France has the highest overall numbers joining the jihad, with the government reporting that 843 had left for Syria as of May – more than half of them unknown to authorities at the time of their departure.
Further complicating matters is the exponential increase in terror suspects on the radar in recent years, Grignard explained.
“To give you an idea of the scale of the challenge, in the past two years we’ve charged more people with terrorism offences than in the 30 years before that,” he said. “Our approach in Belgium is to detain everybody suspected of fighting with terrorist groups in Syria when they return to Belgium. We interrogate them and charge them if we have evidence. But in lots of cases we do not have enough evidence.”
In Europe, intelligence sharing and prioritizing threats differently also pose a challenge to couterterrorism work.
“Intelligence agencies in different countries are getting better at talking to each other, but they may make different assessments of individuals and put their priorities in different areas,” Pantucci said.
What is clear from both experts is that absolute security—whether on planes, trains, or in public places—is impossible.