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Why Is Belgium So Bad at Fighting Terrorism?

The aftermath of the Brussels attacks has not been flattering for local law enforcement.

Police at the airport in Brussels, Belgium, after the terror attacks last week. John Thys/AFP/Getty Images

It's been a week now since suicide bombers detonated explosives at the airport and a train station in Brussels, Belgium, killing 32 people and injuring 300 more. Law enforcement officials have naturally been searching for those responsible, but their efforts so far haven't exactly inspired confidence.

On Friday, three men were arrested and charged with terrorism-related offenses, but two weren't explicitly linked to the Brussels bombing and the third—a 31-year-old freelance journalist named Fayçal Cheffou—was released on Monday, either because the police lacked evidence or because he was the wrong man entirely.

"The evidence that had led to the arrest of the man named Fayçal C. was not substantiated by the evolution of the ongoing investigation," Thierry Werts, spokesman for the Belgian federal prosecutor, said in a statement. "Consequently, he has been freed by the investigative judge."

That suggests the man captured on surveillance footage last Tuesday wearing a white coat and walking alongside the two airport suicide bombers, Ibrahim el-Bakraoui and Najim Laachraoui, is still at large. And it raises the question of how the city that birthed the cell behind the November terrorist attacks in Paris is still screwing up counterterrorism operations so badly.

"Most people don't understand how logistically difficult it is to conduct physical (on the ground) surveillance of even one suspect, much less a whole cell," explains David Gomez, a former FBI agent and counterterrorism expert. "Technical surveillance helps if you have the installation expertise, but it takes a lot of manpower to follow someone. Multiply that by 24/7 coverage, and pretty soon you are overwhelmed."

Last year, in the wake of the Paris attacks that rocked Europe, the New York Times reported that Belgian security operations were beset by jurisdictional and political squabbles, and unable to track the all the suspected radicals hiding within the country. And last week, just after the Brussels bombing, a Belgian official told Buzzfeed News that they were stymied by the sheer number of potential terrorists within their borders. "We just don't have the people to watch anything else, and, frankly, we don't have the infrastructure to properly investigate or monitor hundreds of individuals suspected of terror links, as well as pursue the hundreds of open files and investigations we have," the official said.

It's certainly tempting for Americans to shake their heads at Europe right now, though domestic right-wing extremists have actually killed more people in the United States since 9/11 than Muslim terrorists. The situation in Belgium, in particular, has been like a nightmare playing out before our eyes. Since the attack, local officials have conceded that they'd been warned about el-Bakraoui by Turkey, where law enforcement once suspected him of terrorism. Meanwhile, el-Bakraoui's brother Khalid—who blew himself up on the subway—was apparently already being sought by French authorities for an alleged role in the Paris attacks.

"The country itself has a tremendous amount of cultural strain," says Tom Sanderson, director and senior fellow of the Transnational Threats Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "You have to have people come from the neighborhoods... I've gone over there and worked with Belgian police before and actually was quite impressed with them, but my sense is they have fewer guys with that kind of engagement with local actors than, say, the French or British do."

So even in the context of Europe's broader problems assimilating Muslim immigrants, and the continent-wide failure to link terror suspects to ISIS in the last few years, the situation in Belgium is glaring. It seemed like things might be turning around when, on March 18, security forces captured Salah Abdeslam, believed to be the last remaining direct participant in the Paris attacks. But the man was holed up just a ten-minute walk from his mother's house, and evaded the entire EU security regime for over 120 days.

When explosions rocked Brussels last Tuesday morning, it became clear the city's time in the international spotlight was nowhere near over. "Clearly, Belgian law enforcement is dysfunctional," argues Gomez, the former FBI agent. "Too many agencies, too many masters, not enough sharing."

The problem is there are no easy alternatives here. Critics say France has essentially become a police state since the Paris attacks, with large swaths of its Muslim population subject to intense surveillance. As the right-wing protests in Brussels on Sunday showed, more attacks will likely just breed more nativist sentiment and heighten anti-refugee feeling. And the United States, which hasn't experienced Islamic State–affiliated attacks on even close to the same scale as those in Europe, is going through an election season that includes calls to ban Muslim immigration altogether.

Experts like Sanderson see a long road ahead given the sophistication of these terrorist cells—regardless of which country is trying to contain them. "They are clandestine groups, and by definition hard to crack," he says.

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