Something is Going Wrong with International Counterterrorism Efforts: Quick Take After Brussels Attacks

By Carrie Cordero
Tuesday, March 22, 2016, 1:03 PM

Something is going wrong with international counterterrorism efforts. It is undeniable.

The extensive, coordinated, devastating terrorist attacks in Paris in November and the Brussels attack today are indications that something is not working the way it should. No one can legitimately claim that the Brussels attacks were out of the blue. Instead, the attacks occured despite what was likely agressive and sustained international cooperation and effort in the months since the Paris attacks.

Today's attacks occured not for lack of effort; they succeeded in spite of it.

We should be particularly concerned that something is going wrong in counterterrorism in light of today's attack in Brussels precisely because they were not an unknown: the Paris investigation and manhunt was sustained and robust; Brussels was, presumably, on notice of threats; a significant arrest took place this week...and the attack happened anyway.

So what is going wrong? I am going to suggest three possible theories. I don't have the inside information to know if they are correct, but I offer them as suggestions for the questions the media, members of Congress and Europeans should be asking of their governments and intelligence services.

First, has counterterrorism collection lessened or been restricted, as compared to prior years? By collection, I am referring to all methods of foreign intelligence collection, including human and technical sources, with surveillance serving as a significant source of counterterrorism intelligence collection. My initial thought is that the effort to collect has not been intentionally restricted, but we need to ask whether any changes to laws and policies both within the U.S. and outside have had a detrimental effect (whether intended or not) on collection.

Second, is information sharing working, or has there been some change? Information sharing works at various levels. Within a country, it works vertically (local to state to federal and vice versa) and horizontally (across government agencies). Among countries, it works at the law enforcement to law enforcement level, at the intelligence service to intelligence service level, and at diplomatic and political levels. Information sharing to and from the U.S. and Europe is critical in providing for common safety and terrorism prevention. Terrorism in Europe is not a European problem, just as terrorism in the U.S. is not an American problem. When the attackers are part of an international terrorist organization - and claims appear that ISIS is responsible for both Paris and Brussels - then the intelligence coordination efforts are necessarily international. So, again, the question is - has there been some breakdown in information sharing - within the European Union, with additional Western partners (including the U.S.), and with cooperative Middle Eastern nations?

Third, are collection and/or information sharing efforts being thwarted by terrorists' changing modes of communication? By this, I am referring to, yes, encryption, but also other methods, low or high tech. Is intelligence leading to the disruption of attacks not being collected because ISIS has adapted to modes of communication that cannot be detected? Or is the result more subtle - is information that could be useful in preventing an attack being shared at a slower pace because it is taking intelligence services longer to follow leads, decipher text, or understand meaning? As we know from 9/11, days, if not hours, matter.