National Security

Lawmakers fear Belgium can’t handle rising tide of terrorism

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Members of Congress on Wednesday warned that this week’s violence in Brussels shows the country’s security forces are being overwhelmed by a rising tide of radicalism.

Despite its status as the headquarters of the European Union, Brussels sits in a relatively small country with a security service that critics say has been unable to confront an inundation of extremists inspired by groups like the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

{mosads}“This sort of proves the theory that the continental Europeans have been talking about for some time, about their concerns about Brussels,” said Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.), the head of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

“Particularly in Brussels, the information sharing between Belgium and the neighboring countries is a problem,” he added, “as is the security at their airports.”

Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), the head of the House Intelligence Committee, chalked up Belgium’s problems to the country’s relatively small size. As a nation of just 11 million people — roughly the size of Ohio — the country is ill-equipped to serve as the front lines of Europe’s crackdown on extremism.

“Like any small country, it’s just tough,” Nunes told reporters.

Jihadists see the country as “safer than other locations,” Nunes added, “because their police force is small.”

The problem is made all the more difficult, analysts say, because of the disproportionate number of Belgians who have traveled to Syria to join ISIS in its self-proclaimed caliphate.

According to a December report from security analysts at the Soufan Group, 470 Belgians have traveled to Syria to join ISIS — more per capita than any other country. 

More than 100 of those travelers have returned, many of them to the large Muslim neighborhoods that dot Brussels.

“We’re talking about thousands of people that we know about who are affiliated with the radical groups that we know went into Iraq and Syria and went out,” Nunes said. “That is a tough problem to deal with for any law enforcement.”

“I want to be clear that nobody should be critical at all of our ally in Brussels, because they’re doing what they can,” he added. “You’re talking about hundreds of known people; that’s tough for a country that small to look at.”

The lawmakers’ comments comport with efforts taken in recent months to force European nations to increase their security standards in response to renewed fears about travelers exporting violence to the U.S.

Just on Monday — a day before the attacks in Brussels — the House overwhelmingly passed a bill setting international border security standards that would monitor foreign governments for compliance. Countries that don’t meet certain standards could lose foreign assistance that is unrelated to trade or humanitarian purposes.

“Foreign fighter movement is a very serious challenge that has resulted in the well-recognized need for improved border security around the world and better information sharing between governments,” Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-N.Y.), the author of the bill, said in a statement after it sailed through the House 371-2.

“It’s essential that the United States works with the international community to monitor and stop the movement of terrorists abroad.”

The effort is one of many by the U.S. to encourage European officials to bring their security standards in line with the U.S.

On Wednesday, the House Homeland Security Committee advanced two bills demanding new scrutiny on security at overseas airports and requiring the Department of Homeland Security to use former extremists’ testimonials to fight back against radical online propaganda.

In a speech at Stanford University, Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton urged the European Union to increase its border and coast guard protections in response to the “unprecedented” stress from foreign migrants and refugees. 

The terrorist attacks on Tuesday followed a four-month manhunt for the final suspect involved in last year’s attacks in Paris, which culminated Friday in the arrest of 26-year-old Salah Abdeslam in the Brussels neighborhood of Molenbeek. Some analysts were alarmed that Europe’s most wanted fugitive was hiding out in a major city, right under Belgium’s nose.

Belgian leaders appeared to have been aware of the concerns about their ability to handle extremists, but dismissed them in both public and private.

A recent tourism advertising campaign tried to reassure foreigners about the city’s security in recent weeks, encouraging foreigners to call telephone booths set up around Brussels and ask about its safety.

Belgian officials also reiterated that message in classified communications to American diplomats.

In a classified U.S. cable from November obtained by NBC News, the director of security for the Belgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs was described as optimistic about the flow of foreign fighters.

Belgium was witnessing a “downward trend” in the number of fighters fleeing to Syria, Frank Arnauts told U.S. officials, because of an “ ‘apparatus’ that was put into place at the local level to track and follow-up with returnees and provide rehabilitation as necessary.”

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