Professor Simon Petermann: « Belgium remains a target for the jihadists »

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Prof. Petermann

Pr. Simon Petermann. DR.

Mohsen Abdelmoumen: Were the Brussels terrorist attacks of this March 22nd predictable?

Professor Simon Petermann: Unfortunately, I think that these attacks were predictable. So far, Belgium is regarded by jihadists as a fallback basis with its huge Muslim population, mostly of North African origin (in Molenbeek a lot of Muslims are from the Rif region in Morocco), grouped or ghettoized in some areas of large cities (Brussels, Antwerp, etc.). A minority of youngsters, mostly born in Belgium, frustrated and resentful against our society for many reasons, are receptive to radical ideas. This process of radicalization is not only due to the ideological influence of Salafi or Wahhabi preachers (often coming from abroad), but also due to the intensive use of the internet, which is a global vehicle of desires and resentments of all kinds.

For decades, there was a lot of warning signs such as new clothing habits (more veils or niqabs), the refusal to shake hands with women, anti-Western speeches, etc. Not only local authorities remain blinded. Why? Maybe through ignorance of the customs of the Muslim community, but mostly through laxity or electioneering.

After the failure of the so-called Arab Spring, the civil war in Syria and the rise of Daesh in Iraq and Syria, a lot of radicalized youngsters (among them offenders attracted by the jihadist offer) went to the battlefield. Some returned to continue the jihad in their native countries or in other European countries (following the ideology of the « Global jihad » theorized by Abou Moussad Al-Souri). Others, frustrated at not being able to leave, engaged in the jihad at home. Networks were set up, often composed of family members (the Abdeslam brothers, for instance) or group of friends. Some of these networks have been dismantled in the past and attempts have been foiled. Others remained inactive while waiting for the right moment. Let me recall that the November attacks in Paris were planned and prepared in Belgium.

After the dismantling of a jihadist cell and the death of two terrorists in Verviers, it became clear that other attacks were prepared in Belgium. The arrest of Salah Abdeslam, after four months of intensive research, was a very bad news for Daesh, which always enhances the propensity to martyrdom and heroism of its fighters. For Daesh, it was a real dud. The attacks of March 22th, planned and organized, had to be rushed to erase the bad image of a deserter perhaps ready to cooperate with the police. By claiming these attacks Daesh wanted to improve its image in the eyes of its members and followers.

Despite the recent arrest of many terrorists, I would not be surprised that more attacks are planned against the « soft underbelly » of Europe which Brussels is the navel.

The commune of Molenbeek in Brussels was already famous in the 1990s as a base of terrorism which fed the maquis of GIA and other terrorist groups in Algeria. In your opinion, why nothing has been done to eradicate these terrorist networks?

Reportedly, until 1994, Molenbeek (and some other places) was the center of an intensive trafficking of weapons used by GIA terrorists. These weapons were packed and transported to Morocco via France and Spain and delivered to the GIA maquis in Algeria. Terrorists and their supporters, including imams and offenders, moved freely in Molenbeek and other places in Belgium. At the time, and despite warnings coming from a few lucid police officers, no reaction came from the political officials. The country, in their mind, was in no danger of being attacked. Finally, a few networks were dismantled, and some terrorists tried. Figurehead of one of the three GIA trials, Ahmed Zaoui was tried and convicted in November 1995. The brothers El Majda, who had wounded a gendarme with a grenade while they were transferring nightly funds and weapons, were sentenced in April 1998. Farid Melouk (also involved in the 1995 Paris RER attacks) was arrested and tried in October 1999. Our country became meanwhile the fallback of Algerian terrorists and salafists.

You are one of the few experts of counter terrorism to have proposed the formation of Arabic-speaking intelligence officers, where is this project?

I’m not the only one to notice the lack of intelligence officers having an excellent knowledge of Arabic (including dialects). We have already some, but undoubtedly not enough. The government has allocated a significant budget to strengthen the security services, to recruit new agents and to give them new tools in order to face the terrorist threat but, as usual, that will likely take time.

Can we talk about failures at the level of the Belgian intelligence services?

It’s easy to point the failure of the security services when attacks occurred. Of course, the role of these services is to anticipate and deter attacks. But firstly, we have to cope with a new form of terrorism totally different from what we have known in the past. We are now facing fanatics who sacrifice their lives to be considered as « martyrs ». In addition, we face a nebula of dormant cells in charge of logistic support of indoctrination, and « commandos » traveling from one country to another in Europe. There are so many people involved (more less 5000 European foreign fighters in Syria) that it’s impossible to keep a close eye on everyone although many are identified.

Secondly, the collection of information on terrorist cells is a long-term undertaking. And the exchange with foreign services is of extreme necessity. Unfortunately, some of them are reluctant for good or bad reasons. More cooperation is thus a high priority. Also, we have perhaps neglected the human intelligence (HUMINT) in favor of sophisticated technologies.

Thirdly, the stage of analysis is obviously crucial to identify exactly the enemy, and to understand his way of thinking which is largely spreaded online. Mistakes can be made, details can be overlooked, etc. by analysts who are not really well prepared.

The recent dismantling of the terrorist cell responsible for the Paris and Brussels attacks shows that significant progress has been made but a lot remains to be done.

Belgium had the reputation of being a hotbed of terrorism, does the situation change with these attacks? Turning Brussels into target, have terrorists not committed a strategic mistake?

I don’t think so. Belgium remains a target for the jihadists, as well as other European countries military involved in Iraq or Syria. Brussels is the symbol of Europe. The Maelbeek metro station which has been under attack is located in the heart of the European district. Is it a strategic mistake? This type of operation that indiscriminately targets the population (40 nationalities among the victims, including Muslims) is certainly counter-productive for Daesh. This will only widen the gap between the majority of the Muslims who are supposed to be mobilized against the Western societies and their values, and the vanguard that Daesh claims to incarnate. I recall that the first generation of jihadists, at the time of the Algerian GIA, was cut off from its wider network of supporters because of its indiscriminate violence.

There is a joint investigation between the Belgian and French intelligence services and we see now the arrival of the FBI. Are we seeing an international investigation on the terrorist cells of Brussels and their global ramifications?

The cooperation between France and Belgium is working quite well. It’s at the European level that the cooperation should be improved (for instance, the Passenger Name Record – PNR – is still not in place and the Schengen zone looks like a sieve) as well as with countries such as Morocco, Algeria, Egypt, etc. The fact that FBI investigators are present on the spot is not surprising. I think a terrorist organization with ramifications on various continents cannot be effectively combated without the cooperation with the United States.

The terrorists often come from delinquency and are so known to the police services, most of them do not know Arabic or religion. Are not their motivations essentially venal, the ideology being only an alibi?

The youngsters who leave Europe for Syria have generally a different profile from those who were active twenty years ago. At the time, Islamists had some knowledge of Islam and a clear political vision of their goals. They wanted to overthrow regimes they described as illegitimate and replace them with theocratic structures.

Despite appearances, this is far away to be the case today. Most of the so-called radical Islamists have no political consciousness.  They are in revolt against the society to which they feel not to belong. A lot of offenders became radicalized in prison. Their commitment in jihadism has a redeeming appearance. The jihadist offer is tremendously attractive. It provides a cause, an opportunity to take revenge, and to have their fifteen minutes of fame. Violence gives them the feeling to be respected as the boss of a gang. And Daesh, in their eyes, is a « super-gang ». Of course, some are religious fanatics, but the majority ignores the fundamentals of Islam which is only part of their identity or like a tattoo in a gang.

The danger with the returnees is that they are under the influence of the ideology of martyrdom, and some are no longer afraid to die standing or with an explosive belt as recently in Paris and Brussels.

Interview realized by Mohsen Abdelmoumen

Who is the Professor Simon Petermann?

Simon Petermann, PhD in Political Science and Diplomacy ULB, is a Belgian honorary professor at the University of Liège (ULg) and ULB (Free University of Brussels). He was President of the political science department at the University of Liège and is currently Vice President of the International Academy of Geopolitics (Paris, France). He is a lecturer at the Royal High Institute for Defense in Belgium. Specialist in international issues, terrorism and conflict, he has been a guest professor at many universities in Europe, the US, Brazil and Russia. He was also special adviser for the Middle East at the Royal Institute for International Relations – Egmont (IRRI). He organizes training for judges, officers of the federal police and agents of the State Security (Belgian intelligence services) in Belgium in the field of international relations and geopolitics. He is currently an expert for tribunals on questions related to Islam. Author of several reports on the Guantanamo detention center to the Parliamentary Assembly of the OSCE, he has visited the site on three occasions. He was a long standing observer for the European Union for the Palestinian elections of 20th January, 1996, and, more recently political advisor to the Gaza strip EUBAM (European Union Border Assistance Mission) (2008). He also carried out missions in various countries of Eastern Europe and the former Yugoslavia for the Council of Europe.

Pr. Petermann is the author of several books, including: Guantánamo. The excesses of the war against terrorism, Brussels, ed. André Versaille, 2009. The 100 speeches that marked the twentieth century, Brussels, ed. André Versaille, 2008.The intelligence services in Belgium and new threats, Brussels, ed. Politeia, 2005. Military cooperation between Russia and the CIS countries (in Russian), publishing of the University of St. Petersburg, 2002. Becoming a citizen: introduction to democratic life, Brussels, De Boeck, 3rd Edition, 2001. The Peace Process in the Middle East, Paris, PUF, « What do I know? » No. 3034, 1995.

Published in American Herald Tribune, March 27, 2016:

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