Belgian security in the spotlight after attacks

Belgian security in the spotlight after attacks

When a man who had been directly linked to last week’s Brussels bombings was released by prosecutors on Monday (March 28), the country’s intelligence services were once again shunted into the spotlight.

Faycal Cheffou was charged with terrorist murder and detained for four days near the prosecutor’s office following March 22’s bomb attacks which killed at least 32 before being released due to lack of evidence.

A source close to the investigation had said officials believed he was the man caught in security camera footage at Brussels airport moments before two bombs exploded in the departure hall.

But on Tuesday (March 29) his lawyer said he had a credible alibi, that there was no forensic evidence linking him to the scene and that he had been charged on the basis of testimony by a taxi driver, who drove the suspected bombers to the airport.

The country’s security services have faced accusations of under-funding and under-preparedness in the face of the attacks.

Belgium is, for its size, the biggest European supplier of foreign fighters in Syria.

After the Paris attacks in November which killed 130 people, the government locked down transport and public spaces in Brussels for days as the prime minister said he was near “100 percent certain” of a threat.

Security expert at Friends of Europe, Pauline Massart, said that some of the criticisms levelled were unfair and that ever-changing security threats were a legitimate challenge for any government.

“I wouldn’t say that they’re not up to the job, I would say that they’re not currently geared up for the job. They’re going to need the right training, they’re going to need to bring in the right skills, they’re going to need to recruit the right people, they’re going to need to invest in the right technology,” Massart said.

“It really isn’t necessarily something that is specific to Belgium but it’s a modernisation effort that’s going to have to be coordinated at a European level,” she added.

But Belgium’s complex federal structure, squabbling layers of government and linguistic divides make cross-country cooperation difficult, Massart said.

“Whether the investigation was botched, whether, I mean, certainly if opportunities were missed. These are very, very difficult circumstances and I think the best of governments would have a difficult time,” she said.

Belgium’s intelligence services are understaffed — by as much as half the level for other rich European countries by some estimates — with 700 surveying a country of 11 million.

Prime Minister Charles Michel has pledged cash and legal reforms to beef up the security system and Massart said that whilst extra resources were needed, they had to be appropriately targeted.

“I think they are fundamentally under-resourced but it’s not just about increasing funding, it’s about funding what needs to be funded. Funding security forces in a smarter way, investing in the right human skills,” she said.

The government has sought new legal powers over, and in cooperation with, Internet and telecoms firms to track suspects.

But officials caution that it could take years to fill the gaps in the security structures of a country that is host to the European Union and NATO.

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