Mohsen Abdelmoumen: With the terrorist attacks that shook Paris and most of the perpetrators are Belgian origin, do not you think that Belgium has become a hub of terrorism in Europe and the world?
Prof. Simon Petermann: I hesitate to use the term « hub ». Belgium is undoubtedly a fallback area, because it is a small country that can readily cross with a fairly large North African community, and recent attacks that occurred in Paris and those which occurred also in Belgium show that indeed Belgium is somewhere a fallback area where jihadist cells are active.
How can you explain this? Is it due to geography; to Belgium’s location is a crossroads? When we found that these terrorist elements are from the Moroccan community, geographical factors did they matter?
There are several answers. There was first the geographical location of the country over the two large neighbors, France and Germany, and the ease with which one can move. Second element, the underestimation by public authorities, I would say, for twenty years, the phenomenon of radicalization of young people of North African immigration. This has been largely underestimated. We did not take the time to measure the extent of the phenomenon and that in some cities and districts either in Brussels, Verviers, Charleroi or elsewhere in our country, the Salafists are very active for a long time and control a number of mosques. This however is not where they recruit jihadists or potential terrorists because in recent years, the most important mosques are monitored closely enough. But the radicalization happens elsewhere, of course. It had long existed in the territory of the commune of Molenbeek, much talked about these days, a number of small mosques in back rooms and garages that were not monitored which stood hate speech, where it was holding about totally unacceptable on the part of people living in Belgium for some decades and then there was a lax form also from the political authorities. I don’t indicate one in particular because this is a collective responsibility. His eyes were closed and showed probably blindness. It has not given the means to fight against this phenomenon for many reasons, because it always happens elsewhere and not at our door. Therefore, somewhere, Belgium has become a meeting place, a place where a number of jihadists, call them like that, or terrorists, can prepare to commit attacks.
P Committee of the police pointed to a failure in the monitoring of jihadist especially from Syria. What do you think?
There are shortcomings at all levels, whether at the national level and especially at European level. Perhaps I exaggerate by saying that Europe is a sieve, and the external border of the Schengen zone. We saw this recently with the case Abdelhamid Abaaoud who returned from Syria through Germany seems he was blustering and boasting to cross borders easily, and the proof is that he was in Paris, in Saint Denis, when we believed him in Syria. Perhaps he was at the scene of the attacks or nearby. So clearly there are flaws in this system at the national level, no doubt, at European level, certainly. If not addressed, if we do not take the necessary measures, we will unfortunately still to meet disasters.
R committee working on the information and who made a recent evaluation of measures to strengthen the security of the state is it a routine assessment or is it a special assessment against the latest events?
We must unfortunately still occur as serious attacks, such as the Jewish Museum in Brussels or other of this type, so that we become aware of the need to strengthen our means. In fact, it’s been years that those responsible for police and State Security require additional resources. These means they achieved, it has recruited a number of agents in the case of State Security, but training of these agents takes time. We need security clearances, which takes considerable time. After the attacks in Paris, where the French government declared a state of emergency and that these terrorists are Franco-Moroccan or Belgian-Moroccan, it is clear that collaboration between the services to be more efficient and that it should the means to fight effectively. We are engaged in a struggle for the survival of our democracies because Daesh declared war on us. A few years ago there was much talk of the clash of civilizations, but we are there. In fact, what the leaders and ideologists of Daesh want is to destroy us and destroy our values they do not accept. And so, we must face this major challenge to our democracies. The cold war is over since 1991, since the implosion of the Soviet Union, and the world has not become more stable, however. We are now faced with a challenge that is completely new and which is only now beginning to appreciate the importance.
Do you think that the Moroccan intelligence services, the Makhzen, who control the Moroccan community in Belgium did not see it coming or have failed to provide information? Is it normal that they control the Moroccan immigration in Belgium and that no information goes?
This is definitely not normal that agents of a foreign country act on our territory. While we have a good relationship, and I know that the services exchange information, it is always give and take. Maybe some information is not passed on time and we might have been able to insist, since everyone knows that these agents are active on our territory, whether these services did not hold key information that would have at least identify or dismantle any network. Some networks were dismantled because there’s actual work, sometimes effective, from Belgian intelligence services, the State Security, the federal police, etc. but further cooperation, this work can not be completed.
I had echo that Algerian services in the field of cooperation, have provided a lot of information to the State Security with which they have agreements long ago. Do you think we learned from the Algerian experience in combating terrorism in Belgium and Europe?
I think it has not learned because, in Belgium, when we talk of some countries and Algeria, there is a kind of taboo. We consider that it is an authoritarian regime where the army occupies a position quite strategic. We live in Belgium in a state of law and it does not matter to learn, when we should have done. The Algeria in the 1990s has faced a terrible situation that made almost 200,000 dead without counting the wounded and trauma. We should have the lessons at the time and some did, but we did not listen.
Do not you think it is time to intensify relations between the Belgian intelligence services, including the State Security, with the Algerian intelligence services to prevent and thwart possible attacks? Would not it time that Belgium and Europe are waking up to see the reality in front of jihadism and Daesh?
It is more than time. It is even perhaps a little too late. We should have acted sooner because it’s been years that the phenomenon exists and develops. It is high time that we become aware of the need to eradicate this phenomenon because obviously I can not predict, but I think that in the short or medium term, Daesh or the pseudo Islamic state will be defeated. What will happen when a number of young people who left will return there in Europe? They became radicalized, they acquired military knowledge, and then we may be faced with a situation that will be difficult to control if we do not provide the means to fight against this phenomenon. Let us not naively optimistic, we will have to face situations that will be difficult and also require a commitment of the population. We can obviously rely on services but if the population whatsoever, does not get involved, especially our Muslim compatriots, we will experience many difficulties. If they do not get involved in this struggle, we have enormous challenges.
Do not you think that this picture takes us back to the Afghan Algerians who fought against the Soviet Union and that Algeria saw return to sow terror, these terrorist groups are being formed in Afghanistan? Do not you think that there is a risk that this process is repeated with the Europeans and Belgians parties in Syria?
This risk exists of course. However, a number of young people who went there are sometimes described as « nickel feet » are young people who left for various reasons, some of whom have already returned because they do not expect what menial tasks entrusted to them. Others, however, are gone and the people who come to commit attacks in Paris very clear. These people are willing to kill and kill massively, so are willing to kill as many people as possible and indiscriminately, it must be emphasized. This is perhaps the first time an error was made on the part of the terrorists because they hit indiscriminately. Mohamed Merah had attacked Jews and French soldiers, often also of Algerian origin, today we attack a concert hall, a stage, it kills people who are peacefully at table outdoor cafes, so it kills indiscriminately. There is no specific target but in general the terrorist movements even when targeting a number of elements. In this case and that’s the danger, now nobody feels safe.
I return to the Algerian experience, because at some point the terrorists have declared all the people of Algeria wicked, are we not in the same process no longer aim for military targets, gendarmes, police officers, intellectuals, journalists, as we have seen here, to reach a kind of terrorism where everyone is likely to be a target?
Precisely, we are in an ideological process and for many of these jihadists, even Muslims living in Western countries are bad Muslims. And when you consider that they are bad Muslims, they must be punished. These people were completely removed from the society in which they live. They live in a virtual world and almost supply jihadist suits them, because it offers them something that looks like an ideal. In reality, it is a criminal organization because when you brush type profile, we see that many of these young offenders are small and many of them have gone through the prison box where they became radicalized, d others were radicalized by recruiters in the field, but there are not that petty criminals. Here, the supposed master work of the attacks in Paris attended a posh school when he was young, his father was a merchant, then stop victimizing people. This is not necessarily the misery that generates this kind of behavior; we are in the realm of pure ideology, completely disconnected from reality. There in lies the danger. We experienced a similar phenomenon in the 70’s with the Red Army Fraction in Germany, the Red Brigades in Italy, the Communists Combatants Cells in Belgium, for example, who claimed the proletariat attached no interest to their speech. Ultimately, these people who came from as rather petit-bourgeois and even bourgeois circles have said that basically this proletariat does not understand anything at all. It’s a bit the same phenomenon today. They say that most Muslims are not Muslims anymore or are bad Muslims, so they must be punished.
You think you can draw a parallel between the European extreme left movements, like the IRA, who announced the attacks, unlike Daesh and other Islamist groups seeking to make maximum victims?
No. One can make comparisons but each organization has its specificities. I still remember that in the history of terrorism that goes far back, for example, the Russian terrorists in the late nineteenth century to kill avoided because there was the presence of women and children. Regarding the IRA before committing an attack, the IRA warned to avoid civilian casualties. Here we are in a different type of terrorism; I would say that it really fits the definition how difficult and controversial of terrorism. This is to terrorize by killing the most people possible. That’s the big difference.
To return to the ideology, European and Western leaders in general have not they played with fire by coming to terms with major donors, matrix sources of this terrorism, namely Saudi Arabia and Qatar, especially Saudi Arabia? In alliance with Saudi Arabia, is not it a strategic mistake?
Obviously it is a strategic mistake. A number of these countries, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, often have private foundations and subsidize terrorist organizations and continue to fund terrorist organizations for geopolitical reasons and economic interest. His eyes were closed. It just barely starts both in the US and Europe to challenge these privileged relationships with these countries. Obviously, this is a little late. One would notice much earlier and learn from them. We did not for reasons we know, mainly oil and the significant investments that these countries are in a number of European countries.
You’re one of the only ones to offer to recruit Arabic speaking agents mastering the different dialects and classical Arabic in the Belgian intelligence services, that is to say the State Security. How did this idea chimney?
I’m not saying that there are no agents that are experienced Arabists, I know perfectly well that there are but not enough. They are few because so far priorities were elsewhere. The State Security is an organization that is active only in Belgium and who can not act on foreign soil, except for attending conferences and within the framework of cooperation with other services. So now the need is felt to recruit Arabic speakers did it with the large flows of refugees or migrants from the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa, Eritrea, Somalia, we need more Arabists agents who also mastered a number of dialects. All these people do not speak classical Arabic, use expressions, and we need, if we use very intrusive methods wiretapping, etc. people able to decrypt messages that are also often encrypted. We need people who have enough expertise to try to decipher these messages.
Your proposal was accepted, especially by the Minister of Justice Koen Geens. What do you think?
I do not know if my proposal was accepted, I think especially that it corresponds to a need. I actually talked about this need and I realize that this idea is gaining ground. And it is a good thing.
Do you think that the weeks or even days to come, will not contain very high risk of terrorist attacks? Do you have information on this?
It’s very hard to say. It is obvious that with the measures taken, the state of emergency which was extended by Congress in Paris three months, the deployment of military in Belgium in railway stations and other places, the cancellation of a number of cultural and sports activities, etc. as the procession of St. V students of the University of Brussels from November 20 for example. All these measures are obviously dissuasive. Now most experts and officials say that zero risk does not exist. To the extent that we managed to neutralize a number of terrorists that they are not alone, others will look perhaps avenge, others will prepare new attacks, and therefore we must be extremely vigilant. This can happen in a week like in six months. Hence the need, I stress once again, cooperation of all services, whether European services, but also advanced cooperation with the Moroccan services, Algerian, Egyptian, including Syrian, in short all those who hold interesting information on these criminals.
As part of the Moroccan services which has been mentioned above, they are not very cooperative.
I can not answer that question because I am not committed myself but I think this is an issue that must legitimately ask.
Our mutual friend, the late Anne-Marie Lizin, who was a terrorism and security issues expert, had begun to work on Daesh jihadist propaganda on Twitter. Unfortunately, this work is not finished. Do not you think that social networks and the technological revolution benefited largely to terrorists, especially that some of our sources in the Belgian intelligence have claimed that terrorists have sometimes most important ways that the Belgian intelligence services?
Indeed, Anne-Marie Lizin, a dear friend who recently passed away, had followed this path. She had become aware of the need to deconstruct the jihadist discourse and particularly on the Internet and social networks. I think this is very important. This fight against Daesh or Al Qaeda or other organizations also passes by there. This is a fight that is not only a police, military, fight; it is also an ideological struggle. I believe that Anne-Marie Lizin was right and I pay tribute to his memory.
Do not you think that cooperation with the Algerian intelligence services, Syrian, Russian, Iranian, is very important?
I think it is a necessity. I know there are many reserve to Iranians who in the past have supported terrorism, we must see, but at the same time, we always remember that in 1940, Churchill made a covenant with Stalin to defeat Hitler’s Germany. Cooperation with Russia, with Iran, including the regime of Bashar al-Assad, is essential because the top priority is the destruction and eradication of what is erroneously called the Islamic State.
What are your concrete priority actions or proposals and information that you could advise to the Belgian authorities?
We can give a lot of advice obviously, but I think the important thing to do is to involve what is called community leaders and involve the families, to make great efforts in schools and educational institutions, at all levels, to deconstruct this jihadist speeches to appeal to religious references but who are not Wahhabis or who do not belong to the Salafist movement. It’s very important. Besides the security measures that are taken, I believe that here too there is a job to do very very important.
So for you, the first priority is the ideological struggle, that is to say fighting the ideology. Before fighting with weapons, we must fight the idea?
I think we should do both, because today we have no choice. If we do not conduct military actions against Daesh, it will continue of course within certain limits because it is clear, that geopolitical limits are the Sunni field. They have face them the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, Hezbollah, the Russian bombings, the US bombing, Shiite militias, so we can not imagine a city like Baghdad can be taken by Daesh. There is a need of the both actions: the ideological struggle to deconstruct this discourse, and then the fight on the ground, avoiding sending Western troops, moreover nobody seriously considering doing, because it may to be counterproductive. We must learn from the experiments that were conducted in the past.
So in your opinion, we must drain the economic potential of Daesh and terrorist groups and, at the same time, hit them ideologically. But who can fight on the level of ideas? You proposed to recruit Arabic speakers, is it not time to recruit genuine Muslim theologians?
I have mentioned it in my statements in the media. Not only the Police Security Service, the State Security (intelligence agencies under the Ministry of Justice of Belgium) or even SGRS (Belgian General Information and Security Service of the Belgian Ministry of Defense) recruit Arabic speakers but we also need to appeal to serious religious references that are not under influence. This is essential if we want to convey a different discourse in the direction of our communities and our Muslim fellow citizens.
Interview by Mohsen Abdelmoumen
Who is Prof. Simon Petermann?
Simon Petermann, PhD in Political Science and Diplomacy ULB, is an honorary professor of the University of Liège (ULg) and ULB (Free University of Brussels). He was chairman of the political science department of the University of Liège and is currently vice president of the International Academy of Geopolitics (Paris, France). He was a lecturer at the Royal High Institute for Defense in Belgium. Specialist in international issues, terrorism and conflict, he was a visiting professor at many universities in Europe, the US, Brazil and Russia. It was also a special adviser for the Middle East at the Royal Institute for International Relations – Egmont (IRRI). It 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 in court for matters related to Islam. Author of several reports on the Guantanamo detention center to the Parliamentary Assembly of the OSCE, he made three visits. It has been long-term observer of the European Union for Palestinian elections on 20 January 1996 and, more recently, political advisor of the EUBAM (European Monitoring Mission) to the Gaza Strip (2008). He also carried out missions in various countries of Eastern Europe and the former Yugoslavia to the Council of Europe.
He 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, (. Al), ed. André Versaille, 2008.The intelligence services in Belgium and new threats (ed.), 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.