Recent terror attacks in Paris and Brussels have sadly shown the mistakes and sometimes the lack of cooperation of security services. Indeed, the November attacks in Paris were planned by a Brussels-based cell that was likely to be piloted by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil, also known as Isis) leaders in Syria. But Belgium failed to pass information to France about the members of that cell.
Finger-pointing has become the name of the game: while the CIA director John Brennan implied that French intelligence officials failed to act before the November attacks, the whole world has put the onus of the March Brussels attacks on Belgium. But what is the real state of international cooperation on terrorism?
September 11 clearly revealed the existence of transnational terrorism with worldwide terror networks. Western nations were left with no choice but to closely cooperate in terms of intelligence, know-how and even, sometimes, procedures.
According to the Washington Post, right after 9/11, French President Chirac advised his intelligence services to collaborate with the Americans “as if they were [their] own service”. And so Alliance Base was born in Paris in 2002 for the CIA and French intelligence services to analyse the transnational movement of terrorist suspects and to develop operations to catch or spy on them.
This base – which was eventually closed in 2009 – was unique in the world because instead of sharing information between countries, it actually planned operations. But this was an exception rather than the rule; and cooperation between nations on terrorism remains quite difficult because it must be discreet and touching on very sensitive areas such as intelligence and justice.
Most importantly, the cooperation must also focus on operational issues such as preventing a terrorist attack by arresting the members of the cell in question. The rules cited obviously work much better in a bilateral cooperation rather than a multilateral one. Also some Western countries avoid sharing intelligence with multilateral organisations such as Europol for security reasons and to avoid the risk of leaks.
Therefore, it is much easier and safer for the United States to cooperate with France, for example, than with the European Union. That, unfortunately, does not mean it is smooth sailing: for instance recently, a Spanish judge bitterly complained of blatant US non-cooperation on a case of dismantling a jihadi network in Ceuta.
Moreover, a top US counterterrorism official said European countries can do more to screen terrorists because they don’t take full advantage of tools the US has offered in the fight against terrorism. The latest Brussels terror attacks have unfortunately shown the best and the worst of international cooperation.
Despite repeated inquiries by Belgium, Sweden refused to provide information on Mohamed Belkaid, a key Isil operative who was allegedly the Brussels coordinator of the November Paris attacks and also a planner of the Brussels attacks.
The Algerian who lived in Sweden for more than 10 years ended up being killed by Belgian security forces just before Salah Abdeslam’s arrest. One positive example of intelligence sharing was that two countries passed valuable information to Belgium - which was sadly ignored. Turkey said it had detained and then deported Brahim el-Bakraoui – one of the two suicide bombers at Brussels airport - suggesting Belgian authorities ignored a July 2015 warning that he was a ‘foreign terrorist fighter’.
Confirming the Turkish intelligence, the FBI warned the Netherlands six days before the Brussels attacks, which then forwarded the information to Belgium. Also Morocco allegedly informed Belgium of an imminent attack among other targets against nuclear facilities one week before the Brussels triple suicide bombings. It might be one of the countries that the West should closely work with.
Indeed, Morocco provided intelligence to France after the November Paris attacks of the whereabouts of cell leader Abdelhamid Abaaoud, which led to his killing by security forces in St Denis before he could carry out another wave of terror attacks in the French capital.
Also, just before al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb’s attack in Grand Bassam, Moroccan services had warned their Ivorian colleagues of a possible imminent attack against beaches in the Ivory Coast. The country that benefits the most from Morocco’s expertise on counterterrorism is neighbouring Spain. In fact, their cooperation is so fruitful that it should be an example for others to follow, especially inside Europe.
Regular exchange of information between the two countries has resulted in the dismantling of many terror cells linked either to Isil or al-Qaeda. Spain now counts among the Western countries that have arrested the highest number of jihadists recently. Trust between the two services is such that Moroccan counterterrorism officers have conducted joint operations in Spain in particular to dismantle a major cell in Barcelona in December 2015 that was reportedly planning Paris-style attacks.
Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel called for more coordination between countries across Europe: something that is clearly not at the required level to combat jihadists. At the same time, Belgium has no new plans for domestic reforms that are crucially needed, as was exposed when the country’s various security services failed to speak to each other.