Five years on from terrorist attacks, intelligence services still have problems cooperating
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Five years on from terrorist attacks, intelligence services still have problems cooperating

© Fotis Fotopoulos/Unsplash

Next Monday, 22 March, sees the fifth anniversary of the terrorist attacks at Brussels Airport and on the Brussels metro at Maelbeek.

But even five years after that shock, the country’s intelligence and security services are unable to work together properly, an investigation by De Morgen has revealed.

Immediately following the attacks, the federal police, the civilian intelligence service and the military intelligence service SGRS decided to equip themselves with the same type of software, which would allow them to cooperate in tracking down terrorist messages on social media.

The tender was handled by the defence ministry, and two companies responded: the multinational IBM and the Dutch Bavak. The paper, which has seen the documentation, reports that IBM scored better on technical points, but Bavak’s offer was about 30% cheaper – and that difference won them the contract.

The first problem arose when the software arrived roughly 18 months late, in October 2020. The second problem was more serious: the software simply didn’t work.

To carry out a targeted search, it produced insufficient results,” said Steven De Munter, head of the specialised team at the federal police until last year.

We never used it.”

Over at State Security, meanwhile, they had found a work-around.

State Security developed tools that allowed it to play a leading role in the European intelligence community,” a spokesperson told the paper.

But that is not how Kenneth Lasoen, an expert on the intelligence services at the university of Antwerp sees it. “While the US Marines now use the IBM system, our services are still approaching the problem with the same digital arsenal as five years ago.”

There are also problems concerning the general computerisation of the services. That job is in the hands of Smals, the government’s IT agency, which has been paid €22.5 million since 2016 for the work. “The question is not, what’s going wrong, it’s what works,” one source told the paper.

Smals has more recently come in for criticism over its handling of the contact-tracing system in Belgium, as well as the vaccination appointment system.

In the end, despite the explicit instruction given by the special parliamentary committee on the attacks, there is still no common computer system by which the three services can communicate with each other.

The De Croo government has promised to hurry the work along. At the same time, however, all attention appears to be on the Covid-19 pandemic.

Alan Hope
The Brussels Times