US experts met Belgian officials before terror attacks

People gather around a memorial in Brussels following bomb attacks in Brussels, Belgium, March 22, 2016.
People gather around a memorial in Brussels following bomb attacks in Brussels, Belgium, March 22, 2016. PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON • A "foreign fighter surge team" of experts from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, State Department and Department of Homeland Security met their Belgian counterparts a month before the Brussels terror attacks to try to correct gaps in Belgium's widely criticised ability to track terrorist plots.

US officials say the half-dozen experts focused on long-term structural fixes to the Belgians' failure to share intelligence effectively and tighten porous borders, but not on providing information about suspected Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) operatives. The recommendations, even if accepted, would not have prevented the attacks at Brussels Airport and the city's subway last month, the officials said.

But the gaps addressed in two days of meetings, held at Belgium's request at the US Embassy in Brussels, underscore both the urgency and the frustration senior US officials say they feel as they prod many European allies to embrace the kind of counterterrorism lessons the US learnt after the attacks of Sept 11, 2001. The US experts have also visited Greece and are expected to travel to France and Germany in the coming weeks.

The team was part of a White House plan announced after the Paris terror attacks in November to help Western European allies shore up their defences and borders to avert the next big attack that European and US counterterrorism officials feared was inevitable.

"We simply cannot afford to have critical intelligence not being shared as needed - whether between governments or within governments," President Barack Obama said after a nuclear security summit in Washington last week.

European nations still refuse to share basic intelligence, sometiimes even within a government, leading to blind spots across the continent that make it easier for terrorist groups to strike. Brussels alone has more than a dozen different police forces, and French intelligence, police and judicial officials do not routinely share terrorism information, US officials said.

Since the Paris attacks, security analysts across Europe, as well as in the US, have been sharing more information as they receive it, said one senior European counterterrorism official.

NEW YORK TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 06, 2016, with the headline 'US experts met Belgian officials before terror attacks'. Print Edition | Subscribe