Terror in Belgium

Face-to-face contact is an absolute necessity when trying to understand the complexities of terrorist networks.

A man reacts at a street memorial following Tuesday's bomb attacks in Brussels (photo credit: REUTERS)
A man reacts at a street memorial following Tuesday's bomb attacks in Brussels
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The series of bombing attacks in Brussels this week was probably not a surprise for any of the European intelligence agencies.
On November 13, 2015, a shocking series of terrorist attacks took place in Paris in which 130 people were killed. The attacks took place in several locations simultaneously and were carried out by eight terrorists who were equipped with an extensive supply of weapons and explosives.
Despite the complexity of these attacks, and the fact that a large terrorist network that has been planning them for quite some time stood behind them, the French and Belgian intelligence establishments had no idea that this series of attacks was imminent. As a result, they had no way of thwarting it.
From an intelligence point of view, it was very advantageous that the Belgian security forces were able to capture alive the terrorist who was responsible for planning these attacks. Even though it took a few months of failed efforts to locate the suspect, being able to interrogate him is an invaluable gift to the authorities. Intelligence agencies almost always prefer to arrest suspected terrorists, rather than eliminating them outright.
Even if a terrorist has a lot of blood on his hands and deserves to die, it is much more important for intelligence agencies to interrogate him and to extract important information about his activity, such as his plans, his contacts, how handlers recruit operatives, what kind of process the agent went through, and how attacks are planned.
Large-scale, simultaneous multiple location attacks that involve large amounts of weapons and explosives, require intense planning and deliberation. Usually quite a large team is involved, including a network of collaborators who are spread out over a large area and who either use regular or encrypted communication methods and computer programs, as well as meeting up in person at agreed upon times and locations in order to smuggle or purchase illegal weapons.
The horrifying attacks in Brussels on Tuesday, as well as the suicide attack that was carried out in Istanbul three days earlier, required an incredible amount of preparation, considerable amounts of explosives, careful planning, and a complex web of operators. The main goal of intelligence agencies is to locate the terrorist cell’s back office of operators. If the network is not exposed, it will be able to continue preparing another attack the moment the members of one set of suicide bombers blow themselves up.
The interrogation of terrorism suspects is therefore the most valuable tool for any intelligence agency and is the best way to extract information regarding the location and character of terrorist cells and networks. Interrogators try to uncover details about which individuals head the networks, who the deputy commanders are, who their weapons suppliers are, which individuals function as drivers and who helps with local logistics.
Carrying out a successful interrogation is not a simple task, as most terrorists are religiously motivated and have extreme nationalist beliefs. This makes it extremely difficult to extract information, and as a result investigations sometimes last a very long time. On the other hand, investigators can learn a tremendous amount from facial expressions and physical reactions to questions that could never have been gleaned from technological surveillance.
Face-to-face contact is an absolute necessity when trying to understand the complexities of terrorist networks.
Trained interrogators can discern whether or not a suspect is telling the truth, and many times succeed in extracting details without the suspect realizing it.
There is no doubt that had one of the terrorist suspects been captured and interrogated earlier, the intelligence agencies might have been able to prevent the latest horrible series of attacks from taking place.
One hopes that the current investigation will gather enough information and expose enough details regarding the terrorist network that planned the Brussels atrocities that the authorities will be able to neutralize the threat and the cell won’t be in a position to plan any more attacks.
The writer is a former brigadier-general who served as a division head in the Shin Bet (Israel Security agency).
Translated by Hannah Hochner.