European and Belgian counter-terrorism officials meeting in Brussels last week were “very concerned,” about the possibility of a terrorist attack. Then on Tuesday bombs devastated the main airport in Brussels and a subway station.
The so-called Islamic State has claimed responsibility.
Matt Levitt, a former intelligence official with the FBI and the Treasury, met with those officials. Levitt is now director of the counterterrorism program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
“They were very concerned,” says Levitt, “and they were eager to tell me all the things they’ve put in place recently — since the November attacks in Paris and even before then.”
“But they were also — to their credit, I think — pretty open about how far they have yet to go,” adds Levitt. “And I think it’s a lesson for all of us. Belgium is not alone in trying to do the right thing, and still having a ways to go to be able to contend with a very serious threat.”
“The fact is,” says Levitt, “that Belgium in particular is a very federal government. There are multiple parliaments, across geography, across language, across ethnicity. ... You don’t always have the most smooth communication across local police departments. ... Their ability to share intelligence within the Belgian system isn’t perfect yet.”
And he adds that on top of that, “they’re part of the European Union. And within and across the European Union, the ability to share information is still a work in progress.”
Europe, as a whole, is doing better, Levitt argues, “but it’s got a long way to go. ... Intelligence sharing is not what it should be.”
Europe is much more vulnerable to ISIS than the United States because of its proximity to ISIS’s centers of power in Iraq, Syria and Libya, and because of the openness of its borders.
“The ability of some of these operatives to come and go almost at will,” says Levitt, “this is something that really has to be a focus of concern.”