Why Intelligence is Missed
The man captured on airport surveillance video wearing a white jacket and black hat, is unidentified and reportedly on the run. The two jihadist brothers are dead -- killed in the suicide bombings. Radical Najim Laachraoui is also reportedly dead -- and a second unknown who took part in the metro attack is missing. But one day before the Brussels bombings, Belgian police named Laachraoui as a major suspect in the Paris attacks back in November. On top of that, his DNA was found on the suicide vests in Paris, in a Brussels apartment and a house at Auvelais in southern Belgium, which were both used by the Paris bombers before those attacks. Until this week, he had only been known by an alias, Soufiane Kayal, and had rented the Auvelais house using the false name.
Laachraoui, age 24, was born in Morocco, holds a Belgian passport and grew up in the northern Brussels district of Schaerbeek. Records indicate that he studied electromechanical engineering at a local Catholic high school, the Institut de la Sainte-Famille d’Helmet. In February 2013 he traveled to Syria where he reportedly received training in constructing explosive devices from Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). He returned to Belgium last year and is thought to be the weapons expert for one of the ISIL cells operating in Belgium. On top of all that, he was named as an accomplice by the main suspect in the Paris attacks.
Just a few months earlier, eight people, three teams, AK47 rifles and suicide vests resulted in the murder of 130 people and wounding of 368 more across Paris in mid-November. Three weeks later in California a husband and wife team armed with pistols, rifles, thousands of rounds of ammunition, pipe bombs and remote activated IEDs (improvised explosive devices) killed 14 and wounded 21 more.
The attacks were spread across thousands of miles, but there are common links – dots. Dot one was their radical interpretation of Islam. The second dot was ISIL being vocal about them all. Dot number three is that every shred of intelligence and evidence collected in Paris and California pointed to radical Islamist terrorism and preliminary collection in Brussels mirrors the same.
So with all these apparent dots on the map, why didn’t the intelligence services connect them? The problem is not necessarily connecting dots, but determining what were dots needing connecting -- and that requires dedication, manpower and dollars.
Compared to the French, the Belgian security service, Sûreté de l'État, which falls under the Ministry of Justice, is small and had only 600 personnel to keep tabs on 900 “persons of interest”, many of them potential jihadis who have travelled to Syria and Iraq. Many of these targets required 24-hour surveillance, which is no small task and requires extensive manpower, vehicles and technical support. As the echoes of the Paris bombs still rang in the air, the Belgian service increased its budget a modest 20 per cent to €50 million.
The other Belgian service of note, the General Intelligence and Security Service (GISS), known in Belgium as the Service Général du Renseignement et de la Sécurité (SGR) and falling under the direction of the Ministry of Defense, is equally lacking in manpower and money. Following the Paris attacks last November, it became apparent that the real intelligence failure had not been French but Belgian. Perhaps due in part to their limited intelligence collection capabilities, the Belgian people have suffered as a result. Simply, the Belgians don’t have the people or the infrastructure to properly investigate and monitor hundreds of individuals (440 as of last count out of a Muslim population of over 650,000) suspected of terror links. The Belgians are the weak link in the EU -- and a chain is only as strong as its weakest link.
Today, many European Union governments who chastised other, larger intelligence collection systems are asking to share that product -- the very thing they decried as outrageous just a few months ago. Blood on the streets definitely focuses your attention on the necessary things. In a recent piece, I suggested that if the rebels weren’t supported by our allies or us that Islamist radicals would come in and we’d have a problem on our hands. That advice, like the advice of intelligence professionals the world over, went unheeded and now we have exactly that -- radical Islamists attacking Europe and the U.S. mainland.
When things go wrong, intelligence services get shot at by everyone from politicians covering their rear ends, to the press, and by everyone in between. But we rarely hear when things are done correctly, which is far more often than not.
The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) is at the top when it comes to ranking the best intelligence agencies in the world today, in spite of often-feckless political leadership. That’s just a cold, hard reality and is not based on any biases I hold. They simply are the best -- with their global reach, people excellent at collecting information, and near geniuses at conducting analysis. The CIA, with the skills of its personnel and a mountain of cash to back things up, has paramilitary capabilities that can win wars and defeat armies, and is ever increasing its achievements in the digital age. There is simply none better.
The CIA’s Counterterrorism Center, which had three hundred employees on the day of the 9/11 attacks, now has more employees than al-Qa’ida’s core worldwide. But no organization is perfect, and weak political leadership coupled with CIA’s kinetic operations pulled the agency from its traditional espionage mission, undermining its ability to interpret global developments such as the Arab Spring.
However, the CIA is a reflection of America, and just as our country rises to the challenges and adapts, overcomes, and plows ahead, so does the agency. It’s learning from the mistakes, improving, growing, and getting better by the day.
Certainly, there are a number of other good services in the world today and many with global reach, such as the British, Russian, and Chinese. The French have an amazingly efficient internal security organization in the Direction générale de la sécurité intérieure, or DGSI. Their surveillance capabilities are outstanding. Then there are crack outfits like the Israelis and the Jordanians, but they have both been historically focused on their regions to the exclusion of a larger global focus, and for good reason. No doubt Britain, Jordan, and Israel all land in the top five or six, despite their shortcomings in other areas.
Which country’s intelligence service is the worst? That’s a more difficult question to answer -- do you include their counterintelligence capabilities or their covert action programs, or lack thereof? Many services don’t get involved in those things at all. It’s a race to the bottom.
Just as the CIA is a reflection of the United States, European Union (EU) intelligence services, for the most part, reflect those governments. If the EU doesn’t wake up to the fact that intelligence collection is a necessary endeavor requiring investment not only of fiscal capital, but political capital, and begin systematic reform of those intelligence and security services, it won’t be long before they look around and discover the Moors have taken over and the EU’s remaining days will then have a number.
Jamie Smith is a decorated former CIA officer, author of Gray Work: Confessions of an American Paramilitary Spy (WmMorrow/HarperCollins 2015), former advisor to the Chair of US House Intelligence Terrorism, HUMINT, Analysis, and Counterintelligence Subcommittee, founding Director of Blackwater Security and frequent commentator for FOX News, CNN, MSNBC, and advisor to GRAY | Solutions and holds a doctorate in law.