Terrorism fears mean Belgian troops now have a license to kill

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Carol Hills: I’m Carol Hills in for Marco Werman, this is The World. Western Europe remains on edge 12 days after the terror attack on the Charlie Hebdo office in Paris. The search is continuing for suspected accomplices and other possible extremist cells, and national leaders are trying to figure out how else to respond. Foreign ministers from the 28 nations of the European Union met in Brussels today to coordinate their actions. The BBC’s Anna Holligan is with us now. Anna, what’s it like being in Europe just now? Do folks where you are still have the jitters about what’s going on?


Anna Holligan: Europe is absolutely still on high alert. Just outside the European Council building, there are soldiers on guard carrying rifles. 300 soldiers have been deployed across Belgium, that’s after the anti-terror raids that happened last week--2 jihadi suspects were killed and one other taken into custody. This meeting today is the first time that foreign ministers have met since the attacks at Charlie Hebdo in Paris. The key buzz words really were cooperation and communication. They talked about the need for greater cooperation between European and Gulf states, and the EU foreign affairs chief, Federica Mogherini, said that Islam had nothing to do with terrorism, she stressed that point. They need to do more, they think, with sharing intelligence, especially crossing borders and especially with a view to those foreign fighters--up to 5,000 European citizens now are thought to be engaged in the jihads in Iraq and Syria, so a big, big issue here.


Hills: And Belgium itself, isn’t it known to have the most number of foreign fighters per capita going to places like Syria and Iraq?


Holligan: That’s right. The jihadi suspects who were planning to kidnap and execute policemen here in Belgium, they just returned from Syria, so that really does reflect the urgent need for ministers to do more in terms of intelligence gathering, as well as sharing. They’ve also been talking today about the introduction of passenger name records, and that would make it easier to monitor people crossing between borders.


Hills: These are on flights?


Holligan: Exactly. And the press spokesman for the British foreign secretary was telling us that often foreign fighters will cross many borders before they actually enter Syria or Iraq, so they wouldn’t necessarily just travel from Belgium directly to Turkey and then cross the border into Syria. They would take detours to avoid detection. That’s one of the things that they’ve been talking about today.


Hills: There’s some criticism that in certain countries in Europe, suspects are immediately thrown into prison when they return from Syria or Iraq, and that may be a lost opportunity in terms of the family members of those people cooperating with authorities and trying to figure out where they recruited. Is there any discussion of that, trying to revamp policies to maximize intelligence gathering?


Holligan: Well, in countries like Denmark and the Netherlands, they actually have programs to try and reintegrate those people into society, and they can provide valuable sources of intelligence. I know some recent returnees to Belgium were picked up during those anti-terror raids in Verviers and across the country last week--13 suspects in total arrested. We should just add that there were also anti-terror raids in Athens over the weekend and Belgium has requested the extradition of one of those people who were arrested. That wasn’t on the agenda today. This was a much broader discussion about communication and cooperation.


Hills: Any discussion about increasing police firepower in certain European countries?


Holligan: Well, the increase of police firepower was discussed here in Belgium a couple of days ago. We were at the US embassy and they were demonstrating the use of soldiers on the streets, and this was a really controversial point because the military unions were concerned about whether soldiers--300 soldiers have been deployed across Belgium in the wake of those anti-terror raids--and there was a question about whether they would legally be allowed to use their weapons to kill. We were speaking to the Belgian defense minister and he was saying “Yes, absolutely they would,” so they were able to meet fire with fire, and I think that will be reassuring not just for the soldiers but also for the police officers, knowing that they were the intended targets of those jihadi suspects.


Hills: The BBC’s Anna Holligan in Brussels.