Terror attack in Brussels: “when, not if”


Europe may be more vulnerable to threats of terrorism than it would like to believe, a counter-terrorism expert says.

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Brussels, and particularly the areas around the EU Institutions, are full of soft terror targets, says former US counter-terrorism officer and managing director of Peregine Consultants LLC Joseph Assad. Assad conducted an initial security survey of Brussels on February 10 and discussed his findings with New Europe.

He imparted his insights on the mounting migration crisis and looming threat from terrorist organisations like the Islamic State (IS). Assad has an illustrious history in counter-terrorism matters, with 10 years of experience in conflict-stricken areas in the Middle East and advising state governments on matters related to national security policy with Peregrine Consultants.



Interview with Joseph Assad, Managing director of Peregine Consultants LLC

Assad laid out a jarring analysis of the current security situation in Brussels, home to the EU institutions and NATO. On alert level three (out of four) since November, Belgium’s capital is, according to the Organ of Coordination for the Analyses of the Threat in Belgium, still facing a “possible and plausible” terrorist threat. Indeed, the Islamic State (IS) has repeatedly threatened Belgium with a “repeat of the Paris attacks.” From Assad’s perspective, inhabitants of “the heart of Europe” may indeed have cause for concern. For him, it’s a matter of time before an attack takes place. “From what we have seen in counter-terrorism, they always come back. They have a desire to carry out an attack in Brussels; they will do that!” he said.

Asked about highly vulnerable areas, he identified the European institutions, and particularly the Place du Luxembourg, the European Parliament’s doorstep and home to Thursdays’ Eurocrat after-work hotspot where thousands gather. Populated by a host of European representatives and high-level officials, he believes the security measures taken by the Belgian state in the area are rather sparse and ineffective.   

In front of the EU parliament stands a pair of Belgian soldiers and a few policemen, but do they really know what security threat they are meant to combat? Assad says they don’t.

In recent years, before perpetrating an attack, terrorists demonstrated calculated patience while assessing vulnerabilities of areasthey planned to strike. Belgian homegrown terrorists know what to look for and how to act in Western society, which makes the task of stopping them extremely complex. Examining people’s attitudes, rather than merely providing symbolic protection, is what tough-faced security agents should be doing. “WHEN and not IF terrorists will attack Brussels, the Belgian security apparatus will not be well-prepared to deal with it,” he said.

Moreover, people working within close proximity to the EU institutions should be more aware of their behavior. Walking around wearing their badges and talking about impending meetings with policymakers and leaders puts them in direct danger, as they represent perfect targets for Islamic extremists. In bars and restaurants surrounding the EU parliament, it’s very easy to overhear the Brussels bubble’s secrets and gossip. People don’t realise that organising policy meetings in public, or even working on public WiFi, makes them and Brussels in general targets for terrorist attacks. Assad said: “I sat down in one of those bars called Exki and learned a lot of secrets because that is my job. Someone representing a hostile government can gain a lot of intelligence just by sitting there.”

However, institutions too should learn how to be less targetable by becoming less predictable. For instance, if there would be a bomb threat at the EU parliament, employees may be instructed to gather in a specific area like the parking or the Place du Luxembourg, but is this really safe? Assad says it might in fact be exactly what terrorists are looking for, so they can cause mass casualty by attacking the crowd gathered outside, as they form a secondary target.


Thousands gather in the Place du Luxembourg in Brussels to pay tribute to the victims of the deadly terrorist attack on the French satirical magazine ‘Charlie Hebdo’ in Paris, January 7, 2015. EPA/JULIEN WARNAND

Molenbeek – the hornets’ nest?

Discussing the special case of the Molenbeek borough of Brussels which, after its link to the terrorist attacks in Paris, was largely described as Europe’s jihadi central, Assad outlined his worries. In that neighbourhood, he says, there is a lingering “sense of distrust between the inhabitants and law enforcement officials”. Extremist ideologies spread very widely, creating a division in society in Brussels.

“A moderate [Muslim] person who I spoke with was concerned”. Assad’s interlocutor, an immigrant who came in 1973,  believes things were different back then. “Now”, he said, “there are people that could ruin it all with their extremist ideology”. Also, there is a sense that the big church needs to be turned into a mosque. That is not good because they view it as a victory that needs to be achieved, putting the crescent, not the cross, on that big tower, in Molenbeek,” Assad said. “It creates a culture of ‘us and them’”.

Nevertheless, Assad says lack of integration isn’t main root cause of Brussels’ security problem. The use of extremist ideology — using religion to justify violent acts — is the real issue. Many people struggle to understand the motives of jihadists. He continues to say, one key element of Islamic extremists, probably the most dangerous, is that they believe they are justified as they regard that others are attacking their culture and religion.

Therefore, they believe they are just defending themselves. The rise of Islamophobia in European societies only increases this belief and further serves to justify their actions.

“Isn’t the fact that the European Union is now opening its doors to millions of migrants, mostly Muslims, helping to counter that negative image of the West as an enemy?” asked New Europe.

Assad disagrees. “Unfortunately”, the EU “is not dealing with the migration crisis effectively”. Europe should stop providing millions of euros to member states hoping they will deal with migrants individually. Moreover, the EU should invest in intelligence to intercept migrant smugglers as well as vet asylum seekers before they arrive on the continent.

Last December, Assad participated in settling 149 Iraqi-Christian refugees in Slovakia. In this project, he personally vetted 560 people by checking every detail regarding their backgrounds and thus ensured newcomers did not present any danger to their host countries. “For one family, I have over 78 pages: education certificates, drivers licenses, work ID and baptism certificate for instance. There are still ways to verify and validate these people. We did in 10 days what US intelligence would do in 2 years.” Assad spoke about the young man who tried to penetrate the group, by dating one of the women among the refugees. Their team found inconsistencies in his statements and documentation, and reported him to local authorities. “If you know what you’re doing, there is a methodology; it’s not rocket science.” The final result? Assad recounts, that “In the end, everything that we collected was verified by the US government. We have the US Department of Defense that said to us – ‘we can positively acknowledge that everyone that is on your list has passed cursory US government vetting.’”

Assad says that the private sector is very well placed to carry out the vetting process, efficiently and effectively. “The time has come for the EU to use the help of private security consultancies to deal with the security vetting of asylum seekers.” 

Moreover, Assad thinks responding to threats of terrorism with further violence is futile: “you cannot kill an ideology,” he says, instead suggesting that the answer lies in promoting moderate and progressive Islam in the Middle East.

Some very influential imams and other religious figures strongly believe in Islam as a peaceful religion, but they hesitate to promote a moderate form of Islam for fear of their safety. Assad gave New Europe detailed accounts of high-level Muslim clerics who, for this reason, could not promote their values openly, despite being more moderate in nature.

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