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How the Brussels attacks affect the global fight against terror

For the latest on the investigation into the morning’s terror attacks in Brussels, Judy Woodruff talks to Peter Spiegel of the Financial Times. Also, Gwen Ifill speaks with former counterterrorism official Rick Nelson of Cross Match Technologies and Lorenzo Vidino of George Washington University for more on the threat of terrorism in Europe and beyond.

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    Now back to the attacks in Brussels and the latest on the investigation into who was behind them.

    We turn to Peter Spiegel. He's the Brussels bureau chief for The Financial Times.

    Welcome to you, Peter Spiegel.

    So, what is the very latest that's known about figuring out who was behind this?

  • PETER SPIEGEL, Financial Times:

    Well, this evening, the Brussels authorities put out a photo of sort of three men carrying luggage carts at the airport just before the explosion.

    They have identified them as, they think, the three perpetrators. Two of them, they believe, are the actual bombers, and then the third is on the loose now. There have been raids all day in the Schaerbeek neighborhood, which is just north of here. They have more evidence there that ISIS is — that cell was quite entrenched.

    They found more bomb materials. They found chemicals. They found ISIS flags and other paraphernalia. They are trying to basically find out how broad and how deep this network was. It's suspected that it is linked to arrests that you mentioned in your opening piece, Salah Abdeslam, who was the — one of the bombers who sort of fled Paris and didn't kill himself, one of the only surviving — believed to be one of the surviving plotters from the Paris attack.

    The arrest happened on Friday. There's some speculation, some belief in the officials we talked to that perhaps these plotters terrorists moved up their attack because they were afraid Abdeslam was talking to police and had maybe ratted them out. And so there was some belief that they moved up the attack.

    They're trying to find out right now how much that cell is implanted here in Brussels. But other than that, that claim of credit that ISIS has put out over their Internet sites, we really don't have a huge amount of information right now about who these guys are, where they were based.

    The police have actually pled for information for the one person they think is on the run. So, yet again, sort of catching authorities by surprise and they don't have a huge amount of ideas right now about who these guys are.


    Well, Brussels was on high alert, we know, after the arrest of the Paris suspect, Mr. Abdeslam, last week and it had been on alert since the Paris attack.

    A number of experts today are saying, why wasn't Brussels better prepared?


    Yes. And the Belgian authorities have come under a lot of pressure, a lot of attack even back from the Paris attacks.

    You remember the Paris attacks were largely organized here in Brussels in the Molenbeek neighborhood, which is really just a mile away from where I'm talking to you here. So this has been — the Belgians get very defensive about this. Why all the Belgian bashing?

    But the fact of the matter is that a number of the jihadis, particularly those who travel into Syria as foreign fighters, had come from Brussels and other parts of Belgium. Belgium has the largest percentage of nationals who have gone to Syria and Iraq to fight for ISIS.

    And there is a perception, at least, that they had used Brussels as sort of an organizing place. The Belgian authorities dispute this. They don't think they're any worse they Paris or any of the other major cities that have large and sometimes radicalized Muslim populations, but what is true, in talking to Belgian officials, is that up until about 18 months ago, Belgium didn't invest in the intelligence assets, in the military assets that are needed to counter these kind of radical groups.

    After Charlie Hebdo in particular and some of the associated raids after that, the new Belgian government did start ramping up the amount of money they're putting into their intelligence services, into the security services. But the question is whether it's been too little too late.

    They have to ramp up so quickly to try to get the handle on this thing, that this could have been a lapse and inability because they are so behind the heart of the curve right now.


    So, Peter Spiegel, what is the security situation there now? Are they expecting more attacks?


    Well, we're back on level four, which is the terror alert for imminent attack.

    But literally just a few hours ago, they told us all we could leave our buildings. Parents were able to pick their kids up from school who were basically held at the school for most of the afternoon. So we're not in sort of a lockdown situation, if you remember, after November, after the Paris attacks, where the Belgian authorities said we had to sort of like hide in place for about a week.

    We're not in that situation now. There is a general feeling that this current attack is now over, that they have this cell on the run or they have going into hiding.

    But, yes, there is nervousness that because they do have these suspects in detention, that these suspects and particularly Abdeslam have knowledge about the cells that are operating in Europe, that some of these other cells will come out and act now, for fear of being turned up and arrested in the days to come.


    Peter Spiegel, who is the Brussels bureau chief for The Financial Times, we thank you.


    For more on the threat of terrorism in Europe and beyond, I'm joined by Rick Nelson of Cross Match Technologies. He's a former Naval officer who served at the National Security Council and the National Counterterrorism Center. And Lorenzo Vidino, director of the program on Extremism at the Center for Cyber and Homeland Security at George Washington University. He is an expert on radicalization and terrorism in Europe and he has advised U.S. and European lawmakers.

    Lorenzo Vidino, based on everything that we have just heard and everything that we just from the reporter in Brussels, Peter Spiegel, are we now engaged in truly a global war now?

  • LORENZO VIDINO, George Washington University:

    I think it's undeniable that ISIS has inspired individuals worldwide to carry out attacks.

    And I think what we're seeing now is that ISIS is directing. That is kind of the novelty of the Paris attacks and part of the Brussels attacks today, is directly engaged in attacking North Africa, Middle East and the West. So we have more organized clusters and networks that have received training in Syria and Iraq and have received the order to mobilize and carry out the attacks.

    So they are more sophisticated than the individuals who are just inspired by ISIS ideology, like, for example, the San Bernardino shooters here in the United States. There is a different degree of sophistication when you receive some sort of training and experience in the battlefield and radicalization that ISIS provides to individuals throughout Europe.


    Rick Nelson, are you persuaded that this is connected to the Paris attacks?

  • RICK NELSON, Cross Match Technologies:

    I am indeed persuaded.

    ISIS has been building networks in Europe for close to three years now, and there's no doubt in my mind that there are significant networks throughout Europe, leveraging Belgium and Brussels in particular, and we saw that in France, but we saw that today in Belgium.

    And, unfortunately I think there are going to be more attacks on the horizon that will be connected to these cells.


    Well, staying with you, Rick Nelson, maybe you could answer for people who just follow this casually, why Belgium?


    Well, Belgium has a number of issues that it faces.

    It really is a microcosm for the larger issues that are facing Europe. First and foremost, Europe in general, Belgium specifically, has not done a very good job of integrating many of these Muslim communities into their larger society. A lot of these communities are in enclaves in urban environments.

    There is not a lot of hope for jobs. There's not a lot of hope to get out of these environments, and that really puts in place a sense of disenfranchisement, of marginalization, and ISIS and other terrorist groups are very, very effective at capitalizing on that marginalization and getting these individuals to join their cause or to take an act of violence that gives them a larger sense of meaning and perhaps a pathway out of the situation they find themselves in.


    Lorenzo Vidino, do Belgian authorities have any kind of hold on this? How do you monitor suspicions? Are there resources enough to follow up on every single threat that you hear about or is reported to you?


    No, I think that's a general problem throughout Europe, but it's particularly acute in Belgium, where — because of a variety of issues that have to do with lack of investment in intelligence and law enforcement.

    The federal nature of the Belgian state, with a lot of divisions with different forces there and don't talk to one another, they are severely understaffed. Add to that the fact that Belgium provides an incredibly large, disproportionate number of foreign fighters, so they're stretched extremely thin.

    As I say, it's a problem throughout Europe, but particularly acute in Belgium and investments that have been made in law enforcement now are sort of a bit too little, too late.


    Rick Nelson, how should other countries be responding if this is indeed now a global threat?


    One of the things this is going to force in the European Union and beyond is the fact that these nations are going to have to share information more readily than they have in the past.

    There has been some hesitation by countries to share intelligence information throughout the E.U. I think France started the dialogue moving forward. And Belgium, the incidents today just further reiterate this, is that the European nations are going to have to share intelligence and information if they're going to be successful against these threats.

    These threats, these attacks are very basic. They're very rudimentary, even though the command-and-control may be sophisticated. They're going to be very difficult to identify in advance unless there is very credible intelligence and the countries are going to have to work together to build that credible intelligence to thwart these attacks.


    Lorenzo Vidino, it seems incredible after all this time that there wouldn't be improved intelligence-sharing at this stage.


    It has gotten better over the last few years.

    There's more coordination. The reality is that there is a lot of talk of creating sort of a European FBI, a law enforcement intelligence agency that supervises the work. There is Europol, but Europol doesn't really have the same basic capabilities that a real transnational, pan-European law enforcement agency would have.

    It facilitates the passage of information, but really doesn't have arresting powers. Really, 99 percent, I would say, of the counterterrorism capability rests with individual countries. And you have those petty jealousies, those political issues, those divides that create a lot of problems.

    Terrorists don't know borders. They go from one European country to the other. Law enforcement, intelligence are very much stuck within their own borders.


    Rick Nelson, whenever we have talked about battling ISIS, at least in this country, it's always seemed territorial, putting boots on the ground, somehow saving Raqqa, making it a very Syrian-based war. Is this something that now is going to have — are we going to have to expand our thinking about how to battle ISIS?


    Well, absolutely.

    You know, what we have seen with all — most terrorist groups, at least in the last 15 years, that, you know, the idea of having a safe haven or a piece of terrorist territory from which to operate is critical to these organizations.

    And what has made — one of the things that has made ISIS so successful is that they do have a piece of territory in Syria and Iraq, where they are building, have the ability to plan, the ability to communicate, the ability to train. They have got a safe haven in that area of the world where they can train these fighters, send them back, they can communicate relatively freely.

    And as long as they have the area to operate freely and to plan and conduct these types of attacks, you are going to see these cells continue to grow and continue to be a problem for not only Europe, but the United States.


    And as long as there is a civil war that shows no signs of abating in Syria, is there any way to really get to the root of this?


    I think that's very difficult. Rick is spot on in saying that as long as there is a base there in Syria and Iraq, and particularly in Syria, there's no end in sight, I think the problem will be there.

    If anything, actually, it's getting more acute, because we're seeing that ISIS is developing also secondary bases. I think Libya is particularly interesting. We are starting to see that there's a minor flow of foreign fighters no longer going to Syria and Iraq, but going to Libya, which is obviously even closer to Europe. And I think that's also very problematic.


    Is it fair to say that Belgium, France, the United States should be bracing for more attacks?


    I think particularly in Europe, I think that's a very likely scenario.

    I think the United States faces a minor threat compared to — a smaller threat compared to Europe. We do not see the same level of sophistication. We see individuals that are linked to ISIS from an ideological point of view, very few with operational ties that do exist here, but the size, the magnitude of the threat in Europe is much, much bigger.


    Lorenzo Vidino of George Washington University and Rick Nelson of Cross Match Technologies, thank you both very much.




    Thank you.