Cooperation between the police and the Judiciary on criminal matters is one of the three pillars of the Maastricht Treaty, which was embodied in establishing the Europol in 1999 in The Hague – facilitate the exchange of information on terrorism – and the European Police College (CEPOL), Bramshill, UK, to boost cross-border police cooperation.
The Schengen Information System which was set up in 1995, and was modernized and enhanced in 2013, allows developing biometric files for asylum and visa seekers. Since 2007, the European Union (EU) Terrorism Situation and Trend Report (Te-Sat) has offered data on the attacks, detentions and investigations related to Islamic terrorism, in addition to radical activities of other revolutionary and the publicised groups.
In 2015, the Europol’s Emergency Response Team (EMRT) was set up to support investigations and analysis in the Interpol premises in Paris, Lyon, and Brussels. In 2016 the European Counter Terrorism Centre (ECTC) was set up after the shock resulting from by the terrorist attacks that hit France and Belgium.
The Passenger Name Record (PNA) was established, based on Washington endeavours, and endorsed by the EU in 2015. The PNR allows sharing of passengers’ data between airliners and the police. It will come into effect despite hesitation on the side of Germany which fears consequences on privacy.
The 2015 and 2016 shock
The two Belgian Jihadists Salah Abdelsalam and Abdelhamid Abaaoud called into question over the internal system of Belgium’s intelligence service. The police commander in Mechelen, north of Brussels, had failed to pass on information to anti-terrorism bodies about the presence of an accomplice of Abdeslam in Molenbeek, despite the alert issued by an investigator on the necessity of reporting any person linked to Abdelsalam. This failure was a stigma in the performance of the Belgian police, as it was later found out that Adelsalam was staying with his abovementioned accomplice.
France was highly concerned with Abaaoud, as he had French associates. Belgium let France take the task of searching for him across Europe. Abaaoud had double nationalities, Belgian and Moroccan, and France had a strong external intelligence service.
In January 2015, the French service pinpointed the terrorist’s whereabouts, an area near downtown Athens, raising hopes he would be soon captured. But the Belgian raid on a terrorist cell in the town of Verviers near the German border, alerted Abaaoud who changed his mobile number, and escaped. Lax border measures helped Abaaoud to flee to France. He was later killed in a police raid in Saint-Denis, northern Paris.
The French police managed to defuse the terrorist cell that Abaaoud led in Verviers, exposing a failure on the side of the Belgian anti-terror apparatus.
In addition, the Belgian anti-terror bodies are short-staffed. The Belgian State Security Service employs about 600 people, compared to 4,000 employees at the French intelligence service, and an equal number at France’s Directorate of Military Intelligence.
Chief of the Brussels West police region that covers Molenbeek, Johan De Becker, complained in statements to the Agence France-Presse (AFP) about being short-staffed by 125 personnel. The Molenbeek police was in a dire need for them, he said. The same shortage was suffered from in specialised units such as the anti-extremism one.
The local authorities in Belgium are suffering from division, or even fragmentation, due to the country’s federal system, which features 193 different police units nationwide, and 19 independent municipalities in Brussels. The capital also has 69 mosques and the Grand Salafi mosque includes 20 halls where books sent from Saudi Arabia were offered. Huge numbers of people cannot be monitored due to the inadequacy of human resources.
Up to 90 Islamic societies were dismantled, including three mosques, yet their members are still present.
“A significant part of the Muslim community danced following the attacks … That is the real problem,” the Belgian Interior Minister Jan Jambon said, referring to the attacks that killed 32 people less than a month earlier in Brussels.
Intelligence coordination between France and Belgium is a positive matter, yet Belgium suffers from a structural deficiency in human resources, which is most likely to continue, even after announcing that 100 new people joined the State Security Service.
Arrangements taken in the wake of the attacks
Belgium and France are facing the plight of cluster Jihadist networks, and have been working on boosting bilateral cooperation since 2016. They were determined to further consolidate exchange of information. They also strengthened judicial cooperation, and a French liaison judge was sent to Belgium. They also broadened the scope of common investigation teams and a Belgian liaison officer was on a temporary secondment in Lille, north of France. The police and customs cooperation centers in Tournai and Luxembourg played a leading role for promoting the French-Belgian cooperation on the common borders.
The French government said in a press statement in June 2018: “The relation of partnership between the Belgian intelligence bodies and their French counterparts have reached a level of confidence and transparency that could be described as exceptional.”
In 2017, both sides agreed to form a common task force on criminal procedures to combat crime and terrorism. The first meeting was held on February 17, 2017.
A decision was taken for intensifying cooperation to counter violent extremism in prisons, and to care for minors returning from Iraq and Syria, besides cementing cooperation to fight terrorism and illegal migration.
David Stance, a lecturer at the University of Liège and a specialist in monitoring the Belgian intelligence, said that the exchange of information between France and Belgium faces an unavoidable stumbling block, namely the differences in system of reading laws in both.
Sometimes, a gap could be seen by one party as a danger, but not by the other. What does the word repentant mean, for instance? And what is a radical person?, he explained.
Boosting cooperation in 2018
The French and the Belgian prime ministers met in Paris on June 11, 2018, to deepen bilateral cooperation in internal security and counter-terrorism matters.
A joint statement said that the two had agreed to step up collective involvement in the fight against violent radicalisation in prisons and in the mobilisation of prison intelligence, as well as working together on managing minors returning from the Iraq-Syria region and bolster cooperation in terms of combating irregular immigration. Total asylum applications are estimated at 130,000, and France only has 2,000 places at the administrative detention centers.
The June 2018 meeting identified a new domain to be studied, especially what is related to harmonising the biometric identification criteria in the two countries’ databases, as well as forming joint investigation teams on Jihadist networks and the trade of artistic works of finance terrorist group.
The colossal challenge that deeply worries the French and the Belgians is a forthcoming release of veteran Jihadists from jails in both countries.
In a statement on June 11, 2018, the French government said that it was awaiting, in the short to medium term, the release of prisoners condemned in crimes related to radical Islam, as well as violent extremists.
No doubt their release will set a tremendous challenge for the prison administrations, the judiciary, the police, the intelligence and the administrative bodies.
These issues are set for further consultations between the French and the Belgian authorities, bearing in mind that bilateral cooperation only started short time ago, as threats to people’s lives remain significant in the short to medium term.