Belgian errors hold valuable lessons in fight against ISIS

A Belgian police officer patrols outside the Gare du Midi train station in Brussels, Tuesday, March 22, 2016. Explosions, at least one likely caused by a suicide bomber, rocked the Brussels airport and its subway system Tuesday, prompting a lockdown of the Belgian capital and heightened security across Europe. (AP Photo/Michel Spingler)

Following Belgium's admittance that they missed opportunities to thwart the attacks in Brussels last weekend, the world is questioning how Belgium failed to thwart the attacks that claimed the lives of dozens of people.

"As authorities dig more deeply into the bomb attacks in Brussels that killed at least 30 people on Tuesday, they are swiftly uncovering as many questions as answers," The Washington Post's Adam Taylor wrote.

While the questions over how the attack went undetected abound, the complex nature of them and their elusive answers make one thing perfectly clear: someway, somehow, mistakes were made. Those mistakes meant Belgium failed to prevent these fatal attacks.

The Belgian government has not shied away from their failure. They have openly said that mistakes were made on that day.

"It's pretty concerning," Dr. Danny Davis, Professor of Homeland Security at The Bush School of Government and Public Service, Texas A&M University said of the admission of guilt.

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Davis noted that these missed opportunities "show, at least at that point in time, that the government wasn't real serious about the threat that they were facing."

Asked, however if the failures we saw in Brussels reflect some of the West's weaknesses when it comes to countering terrorism, Davis described that while the U.S. military and law enforcement officials have been very serious about the threat ISIS poses.

Lawmakers, Davis said seem to be more flawed in their thinking.

"I think a lot of our politicians are really barking up the wrong tree when it comes to how serious this threat is to us," Davis said.

Noting that the threat is much more serious in Belgium than it is in our country, Davis reiterated that the Belgians just seem to be ignoring the threat or are "just blind to it."

"Over there it's being proven," Davis said in the attacks in Paris and Belgium.

Calling Belgium a "vulnerable spot in the heart of Europe," Dr. Loch K. Johnson, Regents Professor of Public and International Affairs at University of Georgia, noted that one of the biggest problems for Belgium is that its counter-terrorism efforts are underfunded in comparison to other European nations.

Given the limited resources of the small country, Johnson suggested that other European countries should acknowledged that Belgium as a nation alone doesn't have the resources to fight ISIS, and requires the help of its neighbors.

Describing the greater indications of the mistakes made in Brussels, Johnson the example of an alarm clock going off.

"It's almost as though the alarm clock went off some time ago," Johnson said adding that we have been slapping around trying to shut it off without getting up.

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"As the events begin to escalate we will actually get out of bed and put on our fighting clothes," Johnson speculated.

"Slowly but surely we're beginning to realize that ISIS is not a passing matter."

One of the more confounding mistakes Belgian officials have shared with the public is that one of the men involved in the plot, who is now believed to be at large, Ibrahim el-Bakraoui, and his brother were, as Taylor reported "known to authorities, having served prison time for violent crime."

Sourcing Senior Turkish officials, Taylor reported that "Bakraoui had entered Turkey with the apparent intent of joining Islamist militants in Syria."

After being stopped by Turkish authorities and deported to the Netherlands, Taylor wrote "Turkish officials say that they told their Belgian counterparts that about this, but it seems that Bakraoui wasn't considered a threat by authorities in his home country."

While he wasn't considered a threat there, Bakraoui was on the United State's radar.

Sourcing persons "familiar with the matter," Reuters reported that "Khalid El Bakraoui and Brahim El Bakraoui were both on U.S. government counter-terrorism watch lists before the March 18 arrest of Salah Abdeslam, a French national whom prosecutors accuse of a key role in the Nov. 13 Paris attacks."

Experts had a wide array of feelings regarding the effectiveness of these lists in the past.

Describing the "mixed record," of terror watch lists, Johnson recalled how in the 9/11 attacks "we really fumbled the watch list here in the U.S."

"Two of the terrorists were on the watch list," Johnson said noting that they'd gone missing one day and were not heard of again until the day the planes crashed into the twin towers.

However, Johnson noted, in some cases "watch lists have worked."

"It varies a lot," Johnson explained.

"If you look at the Brussels terrorists, the two brothers were on the U.S. watch list," Johnson said, adding that had they tried to enter the U.S., they would have been apprehended.

"Watch lists are important," Johnson stressed noting that we "need to have them."

"It's always going to be suspect how certain those lists can be," Davis said, adding that it is "certainly a step that has to be taken."

In Europe, Johnson described there is a need to refine the ability "to quickly read those watch lists and then disseminate that information."

"One thing we'll learn from this Brussels effort," Johnson suggested is that "such a basic tool needs further refining."

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Highlighting the importance of inter-state information sharing, Johnson lamented that "nations don't like to share that information very widely," urging the need "to break through that barrier."

Davis noted the "mass of information that's out there." Whether the information is being taken from social media or intercepted from cell phone intercepts, Davis remarked there is a multitude of aspects and all of that data "has to be looked at by a human being," in order to determine what use it can be and "more importantly, who needs that information."

It is possible, Davis said that we may "be able to get information that doesn't apply to the U.S. [but] it could apply elsewhere."

"Then it's a matter of sharing it with the folks who could possibly use it."

Noting how this information is rarely black and white, Davis said there is a "whole lot of gray area."

"Analysts and operatives have to determine, 'how can I use that, what pieces can I use to get a picture that is applicable?'"

Gathering, analyzing and distributing this information, Davis said is "a huge task, but it's where the battle begins."

"It's absolutely important, incredibly important, because your operations are really driven by intelligence," Davis said.

Johnson described the basic challenge of making sure that the information we are gathering is accurate. With the terror watch list, the simple complexity of people's names makes this difficult. "Of course some of these names in the Middle East," Johnson explained are not ones we use everyday, which "can be quite confusing."

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The lists, Johnson said need to be "checked and cross checked to make sure the lists are correct," and kept up to date.

"The other matter I alluded to is to share watch lists as quickly as we can,"Johnson reiterated.

Johnson suggested that there should be maps in "all the Western nation war rooms that pinpoints who these people are," and track them as they move from one point to another.

Johnson said that there is "a lot of work to do in coordination."

"One of the main conclusions that came out of looking into the 9/11," Johnson said, "is that intelligence agencies have not shared information very well."

Johnson was optimistic that the barrier could be overcome, adding that good leadership would be required to do so. "What I have in mind is a closed electronic communications system among the top counter terror experts in Europe," Johnson said, adding that such a system will not "be much of a threat to the security intel of those top nations."

If we could keep these lists up to date while a coalition fought ISIS on the ground, Johnson suggested there is "no doubt we could overtake them."

Johnson described three fronts on which we need to move forward in order to counter ISIS's efforts. The first was to mobilize "more effectively on the battlefield."

"If we can destroy ISIS," in its territories in Syria, Iraq and Libya, Johnson said "that's a large step toward defanging that organization."

Davis stressed the importance of taking territories back from ISIS, calling it "the most important thing."

"When the Islamic State is being victorious [and] has sway over a large territory, that is the biggest recruiting tool for the would-be jihadists around the world"

"When they say they have a viable caliphate," Davis described and someone sees that on social media or television, "that's a big recruiting tool."

"That's where the problem is."

Johnson said there was "no question we can succeed," in the ground battle against ISIS.

"ISIS is not a match for what we can put in the field."

Johnson suggested coordinating efforts and dividing up ISIS territory, like a pie. In that scenario each country fighting ISIS would get assigned a different geographical section to target and dedicate their resources to destroying the terror group in that area.

Johnson's second suggestion was to "counteract ISIS propaganda."

Noting the strength of the United States' public relations skills, Johnson described that "when we get mobilized and convey that message," it is received.

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If our story were false, Johnson said, we wouldn't be able to sell it, but instead the opposite is true. ISIS, Johnson said is "thugs." Propaganda efforts to show that to the general public are critical.

Johnson also stressed the need of doing more on the "human front."

"The best way to find out what these groups are planning is to infiltrate them, we've got a very good chance of doing that," Johnson said.

Describing the number of recruits that join ISIS, Johnson suggested a certain number of those infiltrating the terror group could be Western Intelligence Officers. Noting they'd have to be extremely brave and immensely compensated, Johnson stressed the importance of making sure you have "plans to exfiltrate them very quickly."

"I guarantee you that our intelligence agencies throughout the West are redoubling that effort as we speak."

In the failures of Belgium, Johnson, found a silver lining in a potential learning opportunity.

"I think it's refreshing to see government officials admit they aren't perfect, self-recognition is an important step towards improving," Johnson said.

"There are a number of lessons springing from that episode, every terror attack we have new lessons to learn," Johnson said.

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