Ex-Brussels mayor: We need a pan-European FBI to counter terror threat
The terrorist attack in Brussels has scuttled the last glimpse of hope that people of Europe could live without the fear of a sudden death at the hands of dangerous zealots from Islamic State, and that the blood flowing in the Middle East won’t spill over into EU nations. Even after Paris terror attacks it was clear that Brussels, and especially the Molenbeek area, had become a hotspot for extremists. Why wasn’t the tragedy prevented? Or was it even possible to prevent it? And even if not - what should be done to fight the unseen enemy? We ask a former Minister-President of the Brussels region. Belgian politician Francois-Xavier de Donnea is our special guest today.
Sophie Shevardnadze: Francois-Xavier de Donnea, former Minister-President of the Brussels region, Belgian politician, welcome to the show, it’s really great to have you with us. Mr. De Donnea, French PM Manuel Valls said: “We are at war”. Do you feel that’s the case? And, is this war being lost?
Francois-Xavier de Donnea: Yeah. I think that we’re in an extremely difficult time all over Europe, and although Belgium is for the moment in the spotlights, I think that all over Europe we have cities where there are neighborhoods or suburbs which develop the same phenomena as Brussels. Of course, this is not an excuse, it should not have been an excuse for Belgium to do nothing. But, I think, all over Europe, we will live for several years under the threat of terrorist attacks.
SS: Tell me, what is Brussels like right now? You’re not far away from the metro station where the terror attack took place. How strong is the sense of fear? Are people staying at home most of the time?
FD: No, I think, today, most people went to work, but, of course, there’s a little bit of fear somewhere in the back of their minds. Most people know that other attacks are possible. The government had said that attacks were possible before the attacks in the airport and metro station. So, people know that other attacks are possible, if not tomorrow morning, then at some given time, somewhere in Brussels, somewhere else in Europe.
SS: Belgian terror threat has been raised to the highest ever level, following the explosions, but the security forces were on high alert anyway after the arrest of Salah Abdeslam. Why weren’t strict security measures in place in airport or in the subway, no thorough screening at the entrances?
FD: In fact, that’s probably a problem, that there was no screening at the entrance to airports. I think that in French airports there isn’t any screening either at the entrance to the airports, but I know and I saw it recently, that many many airports have brought heavy screening at the entrance and not only at the entrance of the gates. This is something which all European airports will have to consider for the future. Also, I think that the subway station must be, probably, also equipped with detectors of metals, of explosives, et cetera. This was probably a shortcoming, but this is extremely expensive to establish, and it’s also very cumbersome, very annoying to the passengers who have to stay in long lines to have their suitcases checked at the entrance of the airport.
SS: But it seems like there’s no other way out and it should have been done earlier, like in Israeli airport. You know, there are also reports that the attackers planned to target Belgium's nuclear power plants. One is just an hour-long drive from the capital. How safe are those venues now?
FD: Well, I think that they are very well secured. I don’t think there’s any major risk as far as these facilities are concerned. But, I agree with you that we have to say today that it was great shortcoming not to have metal detectors at the entrance of our airport, but this is the same in other European airports, this will be a very expensive measure to take.
SS: The logistics man for the Paris attacks, Salah Abdeslam is arrested. A few days later, bombs go off in Brussels. Could Abdeslam have known something and thus forced the terrorist hand? I mean, making them act before he spills everything to the police?
FD: Well, I think that Abdeslam was probably aware of what was going to happen. One of the terrorists mentioned in his “will” - the police found the “will” of his in his computer - it said that he doesn’t want to be in the cell next to Salah Abdeslam. So, I think that Salah Abdeslam is not telling the truth to the police interviewers, that he’s hiding things - I’m pretty sure of that. Now, how can you make somebody speak who doesn’t want to speak in a legal system? It is not possible to use force to make people speak.
SS: Is it not possible to use force? Americans do it all the time, look at Guantanamo? Maybe, it’s more effective, no?
FD: This is not legal in the EU and this will be never legalized, so torture will never be legalized in the EU because it’s against our fundamental values.
SS: Now the identified terrorists are said to have been helping to rent apartments for Paris terrorists. One bomber was apparently making suicide vests for the Paris attackers - so, Paris and Brussels attacks are part of the same pattern, aren’t they?
FD: Yes, they are, and of course, you have both Frenchmen and Belgian nationals from Moroccan or Algerian origins in this group. So you have people who are really in the multinational crime. That’s very preoccupying, of course, and I do believe that they still benefit from a lot of sympathy from many people who will never, of course, themselves end up as terrorists, but which have a sympathy and this develops some kind of omerta - this is probably why Salah Abdeslam could hide for so long, because he was helped by people who were not terrorists themselves, but who helped him out of sympathy and because in the deepest part of their heart they have some sympathy: we see Daesh activities in Europe. This is, of course, very worrying, because this makes it very difficult to detect dangerous people who are radicalized, because the family doesn’t say anything, or it doesn't want to denounce them and etc. This makes police work especially difficult, of course.
SS:But the bigger question is, in terms of preventing this from happening next time, how do you make sure that people don’t sympathize with one of their own, even he’s a criminal? This will happen again, you can’t forbid them to sympathize with family member, you know.
FD: Of course. You cannot forbid people to think without expressing their feelings. I can think, you can think about anything, and if you don’t express radical ideas, nobody will know that you’re radical. The fundamental problem is that for about 30-40 years, the European school system has failed to provide enough immigrants with proper education, with degrees, and with a background that gives them a possibility to get a job. I think the first problem in all big European cities is the large unemployment of young people, coming from immigration. As long as we fail to provide these guys and these girls with jobs, there will be radicalization, there will be resentment against European societies, there will be hatred and there will, also, because they’re jobless, there will be easy recruits for terrorist organisations worldwide.
SS: You know, we keep asking this question to ourselves over and over again. If there’s a neighborhood where a terrorist cell has been discovered and suspects are fleeing a shootout, why not implement drastic measures like a lockdown of the area, a flat-by-flat search? Why not go all the way out?
FD: You know, what should have been done and what I’ve done when I was a mayor of Brussels, is to establish a network of police stations all over the territory of the city. I established police stations in the hotspots, I had a network of about 12 police stations open day and night. When I left the post of mayor in 2000, my successor closed most of these police stations, and he certainly closed nearly all of them during the night. This was a great mistake. In other municipalities in Belgium there has not been enough groundwork by the police. You know, we have in our system what we call “neighborhood policing”, people have to look at what is going on in a given sector of the city, of the municipality - and several mayors in Brussels have discouraged those people to really do their job. This means that they should know who is housed in every house or apartment in a neighborhood. This work has been neglected now for several years by several politicians, several people in charge of municipalities in Brussels. This is, of course, the reason why today we don’t really know who is really living in several areas in some Brussels municipalities.
SS: So the city was linked to terrorism for such a long time, why aren’t secret services working in troubled districts, infiltrating them? How do expect fighting terror cells in your city without insider information?
FD: I don’t think the secret services were very bad. We have arrested a lot of people since the attacks in Paris. We helped France to dismantle the network, about 30 people today are dead or imprisoned. Of course, there are still, maybe, 20-30 which are running around. We know that one of the major brains of the attacks in Paris came from Syria with about 70 to 80 companions. So, probably, there are still 10, 20, maybe 30 people running around in Brussels, France or other European countries and who were members of the gang of mr. Abaaoud - one of the brains behind Paris attacks who died in France. So, I think that that is the reason why we have to keep ourselves on alert. Other attacks are possible tomorrow, we know that, but I think that secret services are not facing organisations, which are very well structured. These are very loose organisations, they can hide anywhere, they can count upon sympathy in a lot of neighborhoods, and that is why the work of secret services and police is so difficult today, and not only in Brussels but in many other European cities.
SS: Mr. De Donnea, the Paris attacker has been discovered days ago in a place where he was searched for from the beginning - I mean, this means he never left, or, on the other hand, was able to come and go as he pleased. Is it just not possible to control movement in Europe tightly enough?
FD: Yes, we can control movements, but you cannot control, on a daily basis, millions of people moving around. What we have to do, in the short term, of course, is increase the security, the screening at the entrances of airports, of subway stations, of train station, of public theaters and so on. That’s certainly something that we should do better than we done in the past.
SS: But I’m really talking about the border control right now.
FD: Yeah. Border control - we have re-established border controls, but we can only do that by sampling. We cannot check every single car, we can do that for a while, but you cannot do that on a daily basis for weeks. Europe’s free movement of people and goods has been existing for tens and tens of years. So we have re-established controls, France has re-established controls, Belgium has re-established controls, but, of course, you can only do that by sampling, you cannot everyday, for months, check every single person crossing the border from France to Belgium, that would be really impractical. Of course, we should do as much as we can, I agree with that.
SS: Tell me something. Can there be a sacrifice of some European values for the sake of security?
FD: What we have to do, of course, is increase police controls in sensitive neighborhoods. We have also to do that in a way that doesn't bring about uprisings. So, it’s a delicate task to find the right balance between freedom of movement and security and necessary security checks. That’s a difficult balance, but we have to do better. I’m not saying we are doing well, we should do better than we have done in the past, of course. But, I think that as long as we will have a large number of unemployed young people with resentments, with hatred, with frustration, then we will have a “reserve” army in which terrorists and criminal organisations will continue to be able to recruit. There are important connections in Belgium and elsewhere in Europe between criminal and terrorist organisations. The brothers el-Bakraoui who were the kamikadzes in Brussels airport and in suburbs of Molenbeek have been previously condemned for banditry, not for terrorism but for banditry. So, there are connections, that’s obvious. The criminal network also provide terrorist networks with weapons, explosives and so on.
SS: In the wake of Paris attacks, President Hollande has also declared a state of emergency in France. In Belgium the military was seen on the streets. The city is on lockdown - what kind of civil liberties curtailing will the Belgians accept now after their capital has been hit? Will there be any? Do you think there should be?
FD: The Belgians have taken the same measures as in France. We also have military to check people on the entrance of railway stations, subway stations, we have policemen surveilling delicate spots and so on and so on. So, we are on very high alert, we are on the highest alert level possible - as in France, and we are, of course, working together with France. Again, there are tight connections between the French and the Belgian attacks, there are people of French nationality, of foreign nationality, and of Belgian nationality in those groups. So, we have to work more and more on international basis in Europe. We should have, of course, some kind of European FBI, that’s what we should establish, to have a single police and intelligence organisation, working for the whole of the European Union. That what we should have. We don’t have that today, but I can tell you that the bilateral collaboration between the different member-states of the EU are tightening, they are tightening and they’ve made a lot of progress over the last few years.
SS: Do you think we’ll see such organisation arise in the wake of these attacks, like European FBI?
FD: I think that this should be a right measure. Of course, you will never have a way to prevent any attack anywhere in the world. You had very dirty attacks in Moscow, in the subway of Moscow, in some theaters in Moscow - very dirty attacks. We have same here now. But, of course, no country, whatever its system, will be able to eradicate completely the frustrations of the young people as long as there’s poverty, as long as there’s unemployment. The same problem exists now in West Africa. Why do you have such problems in West Africa with drug criminals, with Al-Qaeda and so on? Because there’s an enormous number of young people without job in West Africa. So, what is the solution? Either they stay very poor in home country they try to immigrate, or they get recruited by criminal organisations, which, very often, hide or camouflage themselves with religious masks.
SS: So tell me, how are Belgian allies helping right now? Here’s a small country, with a small security force, with a big terror threat - why isn’t NATO helping Belgium fight it? Can NATO protect its own internal borders?
FD: We are, of course, helped by the neighboring countries. They all mobilized their intelligence services, they all check whatever can be checked, but you can only check what you know that should be checked, but there are several things and several groups, I think, all over Europe, who are just below the radar of the intelligence systems and the police systems. Those guys are very difficult to detect. You have a lot of sleeper cells, probably, in Europe - people who have no criminal records, no terrorist records, and who suddenly can be awakened by their masters to do something which is very harmful.
SS: Francoise Schepmans, mayor of Molenbeek told me the authorities were too tolerant to immigrant communities, and didn’t do enough effort to culturally assimilate them, and are now paying the price. Should there be less tolerance towards non-European cultures in European countries? How do you be more demanding without descending into xenophobia?
FD: Well, I think that she’s right. Francoise Schepmans is a very recent mayor of Molenbeek, she has a terrible heritage from socialist mayors, who were, maybe, very naive in their policies, or just looking for votes, I don’t know, but she’s right. I think that the only way to fight radicalism is to increase, improve the educational system. Help the families to help their sons and daughters not to radicalize. But, of course, our education system, in Belgium and in many European countries, failed to provide a lot of young people with a passport for the employment market. And when you have no passport for the employment market, you either get engaged into banditry, drug trafficking, or you get recruited by terrorists at the moment. That’s the sad reality. So, I think, it’s a long process - we cannot eradicate radicalism, terrorism, in Europe, and, maybe, elsewhere in Europe, without, first, tackling the problem of youth unemployment which is a dramatic phenomenon all over the world today.
SS: She also told me there’s a problem of discrimination for Muslims in Belgium, that young people have difficulty getting a job due to their background or religion - you know, what you’re saying, a young man from Molenbeek told Le Monde newspaper that he hides his home address when applying for a job. So, if unemployment is breeding terrorism, like you say, why aren’t authorities able to fight discrimination that keeps young Muslims from getting jobs?
FD: We have in Belgium what we call a Center for Equality of Chances, where people who are discriminated against can file complaints. Now, most of the young people without a job, whether they are of Belgian origin or foreign origin, are people who have dropped out of school at 10, 11, 12 - they have no degree, no qualifications whatsoever. Of course, there are also people who have a degree, who have a qualification, who sometimes run into discrimination, that’s for sure - but I think that the basic problem is, first of all, to provide people with a passport for employment and then, of course, to fight discrimination on the job market against people who are fully qualified to get a job.
SS: So, joblessness breeds terrorism. But, on the other hand, unemployment such a vague thing that no one can really control it and it’s so easy to use it a scapegoat for everything. When politicians put terrorism on unemployment, that is basically saying that there’s nothing they can do, it is in the hands of Nature, Fate, the Hand of the Market - I mean, this is a long-time perspective, taking care of jobless people, and we’re talking about now, when systematic terror attacks are taking place. Isn’t it evading responsibility to do something real about terrorism? To do about now?
FD: There are two things to be done. First of all, in a short term you have to go with a police actions, with police intelligence and so on and so on. You have to fight terrorism as on the battlefield. That’s for the short term. But, for the long run, you must look into the real fundamental causes of terrorism, and the causes of terrorism are, of course, lead to the fact that many people - not only in Europe, but also in the Middle East, in West Africa, in other parts of Africa, maybe also in some parts of Russia - are desperate, because they see no future, they are poor, they don’t see a possibility of getting out of poverty, and those people become, of course, whatever their religion - it’s not a matter of religion - those people will become radicalized. So you have to work both on the short run with police actions and on the long run with eradication of poverty, eradication of unemployment. As long as you will have large poverty areas, then you will have banditry, then you will have terrorist attacks all over the world.
SS: Mr. de Donnea, thank you very much for this interview. We were talking to Francois-Xavier de Donnea, former Minister-President of the Brussels region, former mayor of the city, a Belgian politician, discussing security in and around Brussels after the terrorist attacks and how to contain radicalism in European capital. That’s it for this edition of Sophie&Co, I will see you next time.