Why Can’t European Police Stop The Terrorist Onslaught?

Coming four months after the Nov. 13 attacks in Paris, the series of explosions Tuesday in Brussels show that terrorist networks in Europe are one step ahead of authorities, who struggle with the Schengen border loopholes and collaboration between nationa

Belgian police officers in Brussels on March 15
Belgian police officers in Brussels on March 15
Richard Werly


PARIS â€" It's 11:30 a.m. Tuesday, and French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve addresses the cameras before joining an emergency security meeting called by French President Francois Hollande at the Elysee Palace. At virtually the same moment, Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel is convening a similar summit in Brussels.

Cazeneuve talks about strengthening French border security, about the need to reinforce European counter-terrorism cooperation, and connect databases for "traditional" crime with those of the Schengen Information System (SIS), which includes information from all the member states of the European area "of freedom and security," including Switzerland.

All the much talked about progress the police have been making since the Nov. 13 attacks in Paris was not enough to prevent a new wave of bloodshed. So how do we explain Europe's deepening vulnerability?

Franco-Belgian police cooperation

We remember the fatal flaw that allowed Salah Abdeslam to leave France, the morning of Nov. 14, in the back seat of a Volkswagen Golf driven by his two accomplices who'd come to whisk him away after the attacks in Paris â€" Hamza Attoou and Mohamed Amri, both arrested in the aftermath, and still held in Belgium. That morning, in France, the fugitive’s vehicle was checked three times between Paris and Brussels, and finally stopped by paramilitary officers near Cambrai. But the officers let the trio go, because the passengers did not show up on the wanted list in France. Some ten minutes later, the name of Abdeslam is reportedly sent by the Belgian police to their French counterparts. But it's already too late.

Since then, things have radically improved. A Franco-Belgian joint investigation team has been established, and French police were also present at the scene of the search in Brussels on Tuesday, March 15, when Abdeslam is believed to have fled by climbing onto the roof. There is also a constant judicial cooperation between the two countries, and the public prosecutor of Paris, Francois Molins, has paid tribute to the European Eurojust judicial cooperation agency at a press conference this weekend, before holding a second press conference in Brussels on Monday with his Belgian counterparts.

Three problems remain however. The first, which applies to all European countries, is the possible existence of "terrorist sleeper cells" sheltered in neighborhoods with a large Muslim population. These cells may have been strenghtened in recent months due to the poorly controlled influx of migrants from the Middle East via Turkey. One suspect â€" and the most wanted man in Brussels today â€" Najim Laachraoui, made his way into the country this way. He is said to have been found by Salah Abdeslam in Hungary in the summer of 2015. How many others have followed the same path?

Second problem: the overlap between the worlds of crime and terrorism. The worst-case scenario is when the radicalization of offenders enables the trafficking of false papers, weapons and drugs. Cazeneuve, in fact, has just called for new initiatives against arms traffickers in the EU.

Third and final problem: Despite the unprecedented deployment of police forces, the borders remain porous. Some 5,000 police officers are now assigned to monitor the Franco-Belgian border and manage 220 control points, including 42 permanent ones. But the numbers are misleading. The true closing of borders is today impossible on the continent, and it should also be added, that most acts of terror are committed by national citizens who are locally well established.

What has been done on a European level since Nov. 13 to counter the terrorist threat?

Several extraordinary European summits for interior ministers have taken place. Among the results: the adoption in mid-December of the Passenger Name Record (PNR), a directive to register airline passengers that the European Parliament has blocked hitherto for reasons of privacy protection. It seems, however, according to French Interior Minister Cazeneuve, that updating the Schengen Information System central database is still a problem. Cazeneuve has called for the connection of SIS to the national database of wanted criminals, as well as for the establishment of a European task force against terrorism. This must be immediately accelerated.

It should also be noted, that measures have been adopted by the Finance Ministers to intensify the fight against money laundering and terrorist financing. This system relies on the automatic exchange of information in case of suspicious bank transactions, including small amounts. It also relies on the lowering of the authorized limit of prepaid credit cards, many of which were used to fund the Nov. 13 attacks.

It is however foolish to believe that closer European cooperation will be the short-term solution. These EU policies take time to be adopted and implemented. The most effective measure is direct cooperation between police and intelligence services, as shown by the arrests in Austria and Germany which were enabled through information given by the French and Belgian police. The exchange of information is however complicated as the parties in question are reluctant to share information. It is hard to imagine, for example, that French and Belgian services will now accept to cooperate fully with the Turkish authorities, regardless of the potentially essential information the latter may be able to share.

Should we worry about an uncontrolled influx of migrants?

The identities of several suspects or individuals responsible for the attacks in Paris and Brussels need to be verified. Terrorists, probably sent by ISIS, have made their way in recent months to Europe with the mission to carry out attacks. We know that for months, Greece and Italy, gateways to the Schengen area, were overwhelmed by the mass arrivals of immigrants. From this perspective, the EU's decision in September 2015 to create “hotspots" areas where all arrivals on EU territory must be registered (fingerprints, photographs, etc.) represents a major step forward.

But the reality remains: The routes used by migrants are changing, and many people are already living illegally in countries that are likely to be targeted. Thus, the best response remain the cross-examination of data, and especially the exploitation of traces â€" telephone contacts, forged documents â€" left behind by the captured suspects and terrorists who have died in the attacks.

The investigation of the Brussels attacks will tell whether the perpetrators were part of Salah Abdeslam’s network, or came from the outside. We must remember two realities: First, the majority of the Nov. 13 killers were of French nationality, and traveling under their own identity; second, the presence of several sibling groups (the Kouachi or the Abdeslam) shows that loose links exist between these groups.

We also see that France’s four-month state of emergency, despite its problematic impact on citizen freedoms â€" more than 400 arrests, 4,000 searches, some 200 legal proceedings instituted for detention of weapons â€" allowed the police to considerably improve their knowledge of these networks.

Belgian authorities, who had not taken similar measures despite the near-closure of Brussels in mid-November, may again find themselves explaining the choices they have made.

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Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3


LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

If nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

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