More than two dozen people were reported killed and even more wounded after explosions ripped through Brussels airport and metro stations across the city Tuesday morning, in attacks for which the terror group ISIS has claimed responsibility.
The attacks came days after Salah Abdeslam, a suspect in last year’s terror attacks on Paris, was arrested in Brussels, the capital of Belgium and heart of the European Union.
An expert who met with Belgian counterterrorism officials last week told Business Insider that the country is overwhelmed by the number of radicalized people who pose threats to the country.
Matthew Levitt, the director of The Washington Institute’s Stein Program on Counterterrorism and Intelligence, said Belgian police have only begun to understand the depth of the country’s terrorism problem in the past year.
“Belgians have a really big problem because they have the largest number per capita of western foreign fighters from any country,” Levitt told Business Insider. “The numbers are simply overwhelming.”
The International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation found last year that Belgians contributed 40 foreign fighters to Sunni militant groups in the Middle East per 1 million people, the highest per-capita rate of any Western European country.
Belgians have contributed more than 400 fighters to extremist groups in Syria and Iraq, according to a 2015 report from strategic security firm The Soufan Group. Of those, more than 100 are thought to have returned to Belgium.
And it’s not just returning foreign fighters whom Belgium has to worry about. People are also becoming radicalized in Belgium, in some cases without ever travelling to the Middle East.
“Only in the last year have they really come to grips with the fact that this presents not just a problem of [radicalized] people who are returning from other countries but also those who … never leave in the first place and can carry out attacks at home,” Levitt said.
Levitt said that while Belgian counterterrorism police are “quite capable,” there are roadblocks to preventing terrorist attacks inside the country. Part of the problem stems from communication within the government.
“It is a deeply divided government regionally, ethnically, linguistically,” Levitt said. “There are multiple parliaments. So it’s long been an issue in terms of the level of communication across jurisdictions.”
Another issue is that, until recently, Belgium intelligence agencies focused mostly on EU spying.
“From an intelligence perspective, they have long been focused on counterintelligence, people trying to spy on each other within the EU,” Levitt said.
Belgium is also limited in what it is allowed to do to spy on its citizens.
“They have very strict limitations on when certain types of tools, like telephone intercepts, can be used,” Levitt said.
A Belgian counterterrorism official made a similar assessment to BuzzFeed News last week.
“We just don’t have the people to watch anything else and, frankly, we don’t have the infrastructure to properly investigate or monitor hundreds of individuals suspected of terror links, as well as pursue the hundreds of open files and investigations we have,” the unnamed official said. “It’s literally an impossible situation and, honestly, it’s very grave.”
Authorities did make changes after the November terrorist attacks in Paris, which ISIS (also known as the Islamic State, ISIL, or Daesh) claimed responsibility for, but they’re still behind.
Belgian police have been coordinating with French counterterrorism authorities in raids, and the country now has “a much more organised list of people they are most worried about and broken down by categories in why they’re worried about them,” Levitt said.
But the problem has been festering for a while, making it more difficult to reign in.
“They have a problem both in terms of getting on top of the immediate threat that has developed over time and then also moving the needle early in the process and putting in place a 20-year plan in places like Molenbeek to prevent radicalization,” Levitt said, referring to a Belgian suburb notorious for Islamic extremism.
Terrorists exploiting refugee crisis
ISIS is thought to have an extensive network of terrorists in Europe, some of whom have trained in the Middle East.
“Ever since the ISIS spokesman called for attacks against the West in 2014, we’ve see this pick up pace,” Levitt said.
Levitt referred to the attacks last January on French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, claimed by Al Qaeda-affiliated terrorists.
“We’re not surprised by what we’re seeing in Belgium because right after the attacks on [satirical magazine] Charlie Hebdo [in January 2015], immediately there were raids in Belgium,” he said. “We saw not just the ‘lone offender’ or ‘lone wolf,’ home-grown, radicalized types of plots. … We also started seeing these foreign-directed plots.”
The Paris attacks were directed by foreign actors. Some of the attackers had trained in Syria before returning to France and Belgium to plot and carry out the simultaneous shootings, bombings, and hostage-takings that killed 130 people and injured hundreds more.
The Paris terrorists were able to exploit the ease of travel around Europe, which has seen a massive flow of migrants fleeing conflicts in places like Syria and Iraq.
Europe still hasn’t tightened border security enough to prevent foreign fighters from returning and travelling around Europe, Levitt said.
“Travel within the EU is still quite wide open, and that presents challenges for security officials,” Levitt said. “We saw how easily the Paris attackers were able to move to and from Brussels and Paris before and even after the attacks.”
European authorities started cracking down on border security after the Paris attacks, but it hasn’t been enough. The Turkish border in particular is quite porous — once a fighter crosses the border from Syria or Iraq into Turkey, it’s easy to travel to other parts of Europe, according to Levitt.
“The security efforts in terms of border crossing are really just now beginning to get the kind of attention they need,” Levitt said.
NOW WATCH: Briefing videos
Business Insider Emails & Alerts
Site highlights each day to your inbox.