The capture on Friday in Brussels of Salah Abdeslam, the commander of the ISIS cell which carried out the series of terror attacks in Paris four months ago, is an achievement for the intelligence services of France and Belgium that managed to put their hands on the man who most likely planned the multiple attack which murdered 130 people in France’s capital and importantly, now hold him alive. But the fact that Abdeslam managed to stay at large for such a long time, and was caught only 500 meters from the place he grew up at, in the Brussels suburb of Molenbeek, raises a series of question marks regarding the capability of European intelligence and security agencies to counter the continuing attempts by Islamist movements to carry out attacks on the continent.
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Abdeslam was on the wanted-list of every Western security service for a long period but still managed to stay free, at the heart of the continent and in the European Union’s center. This indicates a well-established infrastructure of helpers and hideouts in Belgium. Abdeslam could not have remained free for so long if he could not have relied on friends and relatives, Belgian-Muslim citizens, to help and not turn him in to the authorities. His identity was known and major electronic surveillance resources were devoted to detecting him, and still, probably due also to strict operational security discipline, he evaded his followers.
It’s not news any more – the wave of Islamist terror in Europe reveals the weak points of the local security services. Sharing intelligence between countries comes up against legal obstacles, rivalries, are lost in translation and hampered by different priorities. A lack of manpower trained in counterterrorism and the difficulty of organizations to make the mental shift from facing organized crime to fighting terrorism all hamper the efforts to counter networks of home-grown jihadists, local citizens who were radicalized beneath the radar. Nearly every attempted attack and police raid of a safe-house reveals more citizens who weren’t on the watch-lists or those who had been noticed before but slipped out of sight due to a lack of resources needed to keep them under surveillance and thus continued operating unhindered.
These local citizens are not only the infrastructure which allowed the “most wanted man in Europe” to hide for so long but also the networks which will launch the next attacks. Countering them will need new methods of differentiating between those who are involved in terror, those who are prepared to help or at least remain silent and those citizens who see the terrorists as a risk to their own safety and will potentially cooperate with the authorities. It’s a never-ending and sensitive task, especially in democracies which are not supposed to discern between citizens on the base of their religion. It means walking a very thin and delicate line between developing surveillance capabilities and safeguarding civil rights.
Beyond the concerted intelligence work since the Paris attacks which led to the capture of Abdeslam, the last link was reportedly provided by a friend who he turned to for help, but instead went to the police with details of his hiding place and the mobile phone he was using. If anyone had any doubt, the cooperation of Europe’s Muslim citizens is essential for the struggle against terror. It is of course an individual decision of each citizen at the moment of truth whether to help the terrorists or the police, but European governments and societies have a responsibility to make those citizens feel they belong and have a vested interest in preventing terror.