Written by Walid Phares
Agence France Presse and the Associated Press are reporting that Belgian authorities have arrested 14 suspected Al Qaeda terrorists including a jihadi who was allegedly planning a suicide attack. Sixteen raids were executed by 242 police officers in Brussels and in the eastern city of Liege. Security and judicial sources described the arrests as the "most important anti-terrorism operation in Belgium." Citing the Federal prosecutor's office, AFP reported that the move was targeting "a Belgian Islamist group involved in training as well as fighting on the Pakistan-Afghan border in cooperation with important figures in Al Qaeda."
Expanding on the arrests campaign, Le Parisien wrote that since 2007 four Belgians and individuals from other nationalities joined a middleman by the name "M.G" in Pakistan (to undertake jihadist activities). A few months ago, two of the men came back to Belgium and were put under surveillance. A third man joined them on December 4. The initial investigation began last year based on information related to a plot to liberate Tunisian Nizar Trabulsi, an Al Qaeda cadre who is currentlly serving 10 years for preparing an attack against a Belgian base.
Sources added that a woman by the name of Malika al Aroud "has played an important role in the investigation." Al Aroud was married to the assassin of Ahmed Shah Massoud, the anti-Taliban commander in September 2001. Her second husband is a member of the arrested group.
The Nouvel Observateur wrote that the current investigation which was opened in December 2007 "may have prevented an attack in Brussels." Based on reports in France Info, Le Figaro and other specialized sources, the most likely target of the Al Qaeda network could have been European institutions in Brussels. It should be noted that the arrests were made on the eve of an important European economic summit scheduled to take place in Brussels.
What should we learn from this preemptive strike in Belgium aimed at Al Qaeda's European network? Based on the scope of the operation, its precision and its timing and my own knowledge gleaned from four years of meetings with European counterterrorism officials as well Belgian national security officials, the short answer is we can learn a lot from this December 11 strike against terror:
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1) Belgian authorities have demonstrated significant success by waging an all out investigation against Al Qaeda for over a year without being infiltrated. This accomplishment alone is a victory at a time when jihadists are trying to penetrate Western security systems. Knowing the enemy, its ideology and its tactics are paramount elements for gradual victories. In this case the Belgian security forces and judicial authorities got it right. For example, Glen Audenaert, the director of the Federal Belgian Police, as well as his counterterrorism deputies have educated themselves on the nature of the beast they are dealing with inside this small European democracy. They were aware of the ideological nature of the group and thus were equipped to pursue it. This is a lesson for other democracies in general and the U.S. in particular: Know your enemy, learn about its ideology and make sure your institutions aren't penetrated.
2) The arrests and just released reports about them reveals the link between European-based cells and overseas Al Qaeda battlefields. The detained Al Qaeda members have traveled back and forth to Pakistan. One of their members was killed as he assassinated a major anti-Taliban leader in 2001. His wife was also involved with the group and remarried a member of the network. - Female jihadists have been indoctrinated in Belgium for suicide operations in the Middle East, including a convert married to a jihadist and the list goes on. There is a highway between the "jihad lands" in the region and the "jihad bases" in the West, including in Belgium. They also exist between the UK, France, Germany and Spain. This should only call for increased international cooperation against a "world jihadi network."
3) The issue isn't local. This is yet another example that demonstrates that while many assert that the root causes for terrorism are found in suburban disenfranchisement, in this case Brussels, revelations from the dismantled network prove otherwise. The jihadists' "cause" is not the socio-economic situation in Brussels. They most likely were aiming at the Place Luxembourg in order to crumble the political will of the European Parliament. Their aim was not to send a message on social security or healthcare. They were targeting Greens, socialists and liberals as well as conservatives; they had marked democracy as a whole, not one of democracy's debates.
4) Last but not least, this episode should remind strategists that the campaign against jihadism is much bigger than the wars in Iraq or in Afghanistan. Like India, Belgium was opposed to the invasion of Iraq and isn't a main partner in Afghanistan. Yet it was and remains a target for the combat Salafists. This is further evidence that the jihadi threat is truly global and that the response must also be global. Today the Belgians have scored a daring victory for the international community.
Dr. Walid Phares is a visiting scholar at the European Foundation for Democracy and the Director of the Future Terrorism Project at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. He is the author of "The Confrontation: Winning the War against Future Jihad."
PS: This article was first published by the "Fox Forum."