At this hour, the city of Brussels is on lock-down. Residents are being told to stay indoors and the U.S. Embassy has advised Americans to shelter in place. Subways are closed, along with most shops and businesses. Belgian troops have been deployed in the city for the first time since World War II, all in response to what the nation’s prime minister described as “precise” information on a pending terrorist attack, similar to the one in Paris on 13 November.
Belgium’s national Crisis Center had raised its terrorism alert for the Brussels region to Level 4, which indicates a “serious and immediate threat.” Belgium’s special security Cabinet held an emergency meeting Saturday morning.
Brussels was home to the suspected organizer of the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, and Belgium has filed charges of “participation in terrorist attacks and participation in the activities of a terrorist organization” against three suspects relating to the Paris attacks.
At least one Paris attacker, Salah Abdeslam, crossed into Belgium the morning after the attacks. A Paris police official and the Paris prosecutor’s office said Saturday they had no firm information on Abdeslam’s whereabouts, including whether he was in the Brussels area.
But fears of a looming attack go well beyond the Belgian border. Across much of Europe and the United States, security has been tightened; analysts are pouring over data and law enforcement and counter-terrorism teams are on heightened alert, assuming (correctly) that Islamic terrorists are preparing to strike again.
Yet, there is also a foreboding that security forces are running well behind their foes, and window for preemptive action is rapidly closing. The measures taken in Brussels are extraordinary and quite necessary, yet they also reflect clear gaps in the intelligence database. If authorities were reasonably sure of the cell’s whereabouts and possible attack timeline, it’s a given that police and military counter-terrorism units would have already raided those locations.
Indeed, Belgian and French authorities conducted hundreds of raids over the past eight days, attempting to locate individuals involved with the Paris attack and prevent strikes at other locations, including Brussels. So far, scores of suspects have been arrested, but officials have not been able to locate Abdeslam (and others) who may be preparing for the next attack.
On our side of the Atlantic, preparations are less urgent, but security has been heightened in a number of locations, including Washington, D.C. and New York City. In recent days, ISIS has threatened attacks against Times Square and the White House. Those claims may be nothing more than idle boasts, but given the group’s recent string of operational successes (the Paris attacks; bombings against Hizballah enclaves in Beirut and the downing of a Russian jetliner of the Sinai), such threats must be taken seriously.
Unfortunately, American security forces face the same challenge as their European counterparts. With ISIS leapfrogging outside of their traditional sphere of operations, the group is clearly a trans-national threat, with its sights firmly focused on the United States. There is a broad consensus within intelligence and law enforcement that a major ISIS attack–on American soil–is only a matter of time
Earlier this week, Morten Storm, a former Al Qadia operative-turned-CIA-double agent predicted a terrorist stirke in the CONUS “within two weeks.” He theorized that cells in Europe and the U.S. are about to be discovered (in wake of the massive manhunt after Paris) and “need to do as much damage while they still can.” The timeline suggested by Mr. Storm pushes the attack window into the start of the Christmas shopping season. A successful strike during that period could devastate the American economy; many small businesses depend on strong Christmas sales to generate a profit for the year. Multiple attacks against shopping malls or big-box retailers could keep millions of Americans home for the holidays, and jeopardize the future of many retail outlets.
How has ISIS managed this feat? Western indifference and moral cowardice played a decisive role (more on that in a moment), but the terror group never lost sight of it strategic goals–nor missed an opportunity to influence and shape regional events for its own benefits.
In Europe, it was simply a matter of flooding the zone, manipulating the exodus of “refugees” from Syria and inserting ISIS fighters into their ranks. The danger signs were clearly there; immigration officials in Greece, the Balkans and Hungary (who first dealt with the flood of migrants) warned that the refugee “population” had relatively few women and children, while military-age males represented up to 77% of those streaming across the borders. In recent days, we have learned that two of the terrorists behind the Paris attacks crossed into Greece less than two months ago, posing as refugees. Lebanon’s education minister estimated earlier this week that “two percent” of the refugees are terrorists operatives, so the math is fairly easy. If the Obama Administration makes good on its vow to admit 10,000 Syrian refugees this year, upwards of 200 could be terrorists. It is worth remembering that the carnage in Paris was unleashed by roughly a dozen operatives. How many Americans could 100 terrorists kill? Or even 50?
And there are plenty of indications that the ISIS wave has already reached American shores. FBI Director James Comey has stated that the bureau has more than 1,000 ISIS-related investigations in progress across the country. Mr. Comey has not disclosed the number representing “lone wolf” type threats (often from self-radicalized individuals) and those that might be connected to more complex attacks, like those in Paris or yesterday’s strike on a western hotel in Mali, which killed 27 people. The Mali attack was carried out by an Al Qaida affiliate, which may be trying to demonstrate that group’s continued relevance in the Age of ISIS.
Closer to home, the FBI Director isn’t the only one claiming that ISIS is already here. A Syrian community leader in New York claims the group is currently operating from American soil. And earlier this week, federal agents arrested eight Syrian nationals trying to cross our porous southern border, though officials at the Department of Homeland Security refused to confirm that claim. The arrests along the border were followed by reports that five Syrian nationals had been detained after entering Honduras with fake Greek passports. The Syrians were reportedly en route to the United States when they were detained by Honduran authorities.
Meanwhile, President Obama appears unfazed by it all, sticking with plans to bring at least 10,000 Syrians to the U.S. this year, with larger numbers in 2016 and beyond. Predicatbly, Mr. Obama has ridiculed Republicans and others who oppose his aslyum program, accusing them of “being afraid of widows and orphans.”
Predictably, Obama and his minions would provide straight answers on how many refugees are being resettled in individual communities, and the demography of the asylum seekers. But if Europe is any indication, the vast majority of the migrants are young men, not women and children. Young men who, in many cases, fit the general profile of someone who has fought for ISIS overseas, sympathizes with the group, or is a Middle East-born operative dispatched to infiltrate the U.S. or Europe while posing as a refugee.
And, as we’ve learned in recent days, identifying and tracking potential terrorists has become more difficult, as ISIS employs more sophisticated encryption systems, and uses gaming consoles and similar systems that create discreet, temporary networks that area difficult to detect and penetrate for surveillance purposes. These techniques are a major reason that NSA, GCHQ and the SIGINT division of French Intelligence (DGSE) failed to detect potential electronic warning signs before the attack.
With more terrorists going “dark,” security forces must fall back on less sophisticated methods, including old-fashioned gumshoe surveillance. But once again, our capabilities are limited. Without reliable SIGINT, it is more difficult to deploy surveillance assets in the right locations at the right time. Additionally, it has been difficult for intelligence and security forces (particularly in Europe) to penetrate Muslim communities, often referred to as “no go” zones.
Making matters more difficult, physical surveillance assets are often limited. Fran Townsend, a former Homeland Security Adviser for President George W. Bush, recently told an interviewer that federal agents can maintain full-time surveillance on 60-70 people on any given day. Compare that total to the number of active ISIS investigations in the U.S., and the size of our problem becomes even more clear.
If these reports are accurate, then ISIS probably has enough assets in place to carry out a major attack in the U.S., likely following the Paris and/or Mumbai models. The group makes no secret of its desire to strike our homeland and an attempted attack is probably just days away. We are certainly not alone in this prediction and we sincerely hope we are wrong. But all signs point to a coming attack against the United States, and sooner rather than later.