Imagine hearing the theme music from the Pink Panther playing in the background as Inspector Clouseau moves in on the criminal mastermind. But then, as always, he takes a wrong turn and falls through a ceiling and down a flight of stairs and the villain slips away.
This movie scenario seems not so far removed from the policing tactics employed by the French and Belgian authorities since the Charlie Hebdo attacks of January 2015. No one can forget the images of the gunmen as they walked and drove through the streets of Paris firing their AK 47 machine guns as they went, in brazen disregard for all life. Alarmingly, it was discovered later that those firearms were purchased on the black market in Belgium and transported over the border into France undetected.
Here’s where it turns Clouseauesque
Now let’s skip ahead ten months, after it had already been firmly established that terror cells were operating out of Belgium and that it had become a major jihadist recruitment center. Terrorists were again able to easily move weapons and explosives across the border to stage the Paris concert hall and café attacks that killed 130 people. Had the French police not been paying attention?
But Clouseau reared his clueless head again! The day after the Paris attacks, the abortive suicide bomber and lone survivor, Salah Abelslam, was stopped at the border, questioned and allowed to proceed into Belgium. He spent the next four months at large hiding in plain sight within walking distance of his childhood home in the infamous Muslim suburb of Molenbeek. And though police raids finally led to his arrest, it was revealed that intelligence that should have been shared by the Belgian police and wasn’t would have led to his capture much sooner and may have even foiled the Belgian airport and subway attacks of this past week.
Truck-sized intelligence gaps
But the most disturbing aspect of this tragedy is the failure of the French and Belgian authorities to pay heed to repeated intelligence reports from Turkey and acquaintances of the attackers themselves that told of their movements and increasing radicalization in the months prior to the crimes. Repeatedly, French and Belgian authorities either ignored the warnings or told the informers there was nothing they could do.
A case in point is that of Omar Ismail Mostefai, the French citizen who attacked the Bataclan concert hall with two other men. Mostefai had been on a radicalization watch list since 2010 and between 2013 and 2014 was believed to be fighting in Syria along side Islamic State. Upon his return in 2014 he went unmonitored by French authorities even though Turkish police had notified them that Mostefai was a terrorism suspect.
One of Mostefai’s accomplices, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, who also spent time in Syria with IS and was the group’s ringleader, supposedly had this to say about Belgian intelligence.
“My name and picture were all over the news yet I was able to stay in their homeland, plan operations against them, and leave safely when doing so became necessary.” (Abdelhamid Abaaoud, Interview with IS online magazine, February 2015)
A shameful oversight is that security agencies designed to disrupt these terrorist networks already exist in Europe. Frontex has been operating since 2004 and plays a big role in promoting border security for all EU members. They also collate and analyze intelligence on criminal activity. Europol is another agency that works in partnership with EU member police forces to help track criminal threats. There’s also Interpol and U.S. intelligence agencies to assist in researching criminal trends. But it seems the inner Clouseau of these two EU countries came to the fore again and was too proud or insular to seek outside help.
Recently the interior ministers of both countries offered up their resignations, but what’s really needed to stop this radical crime wave is intelligence-led policing and better control of the porous borders that exist now in the EU. Merely making arrests after the fact sends the message to these fanatic criminals that they can penetrate any target at least once unhindered, and since their missions are often suicidal, one opportunity is all they need.
Plainly, the culture of secrecy concerning intelligence sharing and the policy of reactive policing are the main problems that have led to the current security crisis we see in France and Belgium. What’s needed now is country to country cooperation and preventive intelligence that will make it very difficult for these terrorists to move in the EU. When national policing in the EU comes in from out of the dark, the image of the stumbling Inspector Clouseau will be gladly put to rest.