Alain Grignard is a senior member of the counterterror unit in the Brussels Federal Police and a lecturer on political Islam at the University of Liege. Ever since becoming the first team leader of the newly founded counterterrorism unit of the Belgian gendarmerie in 1985, he has been at the heart of Belgium’s efforts to tackle Islamist extremism, including investigations into Algerian terrorist networks linked to the 1995 Paris metro bombing, the dismantling of the network behind the assassination of Ahmad Shah Massoud, the dismantling of al-Qa`ida and Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group cells operating in Belgium, as well as a network linked to Muriel Degauque, a Belgian woman who carried out a suicide bombing in Iraq in 2005. More recently he has been part of the investigations into the attack on a Jewish museum in Brussels in May 2014, and an Islamic State cell plotting to attack Belgium in January 2015. Nicknamed the “professor” by police colleagues, he was described shortly after 9/11 by the Wall Street Journal as Belgium’s “secret weapon” against terrorism.
CTC: What is the level of terrorist threat in Belgium?
Grignard: It’s never been higher in all the years I’ve been working on counterterrorism. It boils down to mathematics and it’s all linked to the Syria dynamic. A high number of Belgian extremists have traveled to join jihadi groups in Syria and Iraq. Wannabe Belgian jihadis are still leaving every month. There’s no way of knowing the exact numbers but I can tell you with certainty that at least 300 have traveled—that’s the number we have sufficient evidence to bring charges against. At least 100 have returned to Belgium, but we are under no illusions that there aren’t more we don’t know about. It’s impossible to do surveillance on everybody.
To give you an idea of the scale of the challenge, in the past two years we’ve charged more people with terrorism offences than in the 30 years before that. There’s been an exponential rise in the numbers being put on trial in Belgium, with dozens of convictions of individuals involved in Syria recruitment networks already this year and verdicts expected in the cases of dozens of others by year’s end. Our approach in Belgium is to detain everybody suspected of fighting with terrorist groups in Syria when they return to Belgium. We interrogate them and charge them if we have evidence. But in lots of cases we do not have enough evidence.
The danger of these travel flows was brought home when we thwarted attack plans by Belgian Islamic State recruits in a gun battle in the eastern town of Verviers in January. Additionally, in May 2014, a French extremist who had allegedly fought with the Islamic State in Syria killed four at the Jewish museum here in Brussels. Since the Verviers operation we’ve made a significant number of arrests, not all of them publicized, and we remain on high alert.
CTC: Which terrorist groups are you most concerned about?
Grignard: There are several threat streams we are worried about. As the civil war in Syria progressed, we were initially more worried about al-Qa`ida, given the deep pool of Belgian and European extremists who had traveled there. This provided a historic opportunity for the terrorist group. From 2012 to 2013 onwards we saw indications al-Qa`ida operatives were trying to talent spot Western extremists fighting in Syria for potential operations against the West. The Islamic State initially appeared to be preoccupied with building its Islamic Caliphate, but that changed a year ago after the initiation of the U.S.-led air campaign against it. The concern is the Islamic State is now moving toward directly targeting the Western countries, including Belgium, carrying out strikes against it. And the worry is that competition between al-Qa`ida and the Islamic State will see both groups try to outdo each other with attacks in the West.
We are also worried about attacks by homegrown radicals inspired by al-Qa`ida or the Islamic State. There’s a dynamic in which radicals unable to travel feel frustrated and may turn to plotting something at home. Over the last year we’ve seen Belgian jihadis in Syria message their friends over social media to encourage them to launch attacks. It’s worth pointing out that these extremists are hardly ever lone wolves in the literal sense of the word. In my whole career I’m only aware of two true terrorist loners: the Unabomber and Anders Breivik. This at least gives us some chance to identify them.
CTC: Was the Verviers cell directed by the leadership of the Islamic State to return to Belgium in order to carry out an attack?
Grignard: That’s our impression. There’s a limit to what I can say because investigations are ongoing. But as has now been widely reported we found a very significant stash of weapons in their safe house along with the chemicals necessary to make the high explosive TATP. We also found police uniforms. All this indicates they were preparing a terrorist campaign in Belgium rather than a one-off attack on police. We don’t yet have all the details on what they were planning.
CTC: What else concerned you about the Verviers cell?
Grignard: Their profile was of great concern to us: men in their early twenties mostly from the Molenbeek district of Brussels moving in circles with a track record of delinquency and petty crime. They were radicalized very quickly, and when they came back from Syria they had no fear of death. When our commandos launched their raid it took the suspected terrorists one second to switch from chatting between themselves to opening fire. These guys had maybe more experience in gun battles than our own commandos. Here in Belgium and across Europe we are now reviewing how we do these kind of raids.
CTC: We’ve seen that same profile in several other cases in Europe in recent years. Are we seeing the emergence of a new breed of jihadi in the West?
Grignard: There’s no doubt there has been a shift. The travel flow we are seeing to Syria is to a significant degree an extension of the “inner-city” gang phenomenon. Young Muslim men with a history of social and criminal delinquency are joining up with the Islamic State as part of a sort of “super-gang.”
Previously we were mostly dealing with “radical Islamists”—individuals radicalized toward violence by an extremist interpretation of Islam—but now we’re increasingly dealing with what are best described as “Islamized radicals.” The young Muslims from “inner-city” areas of Belgium, France, and other European countries joining up with the Islamic State were radical before they were religious. Their revolt from society manifested itself through petty crime and delinquency. Many are essentially part of street gangs. What the Islamic State brought in its wake was a new strain of Islam which legitimized their radical approach. These youngsters are getting quickly and completely sucked in. The next thing they know they’re in Syria and in a real video game. The environment they find themselves in over there is attractive to them. Just like in gangs in Europe, respect is equated with fear. They feel like somebody when they’re over in Syria. If someone crosses you there, you put a bullet in his head. The Islamic State has legitimized their violent street credo. The gang dimension, and the group loyalty that it creates, make the social media messages by Belgian fighters in Syria to their circle back home encouraging attacks especially concerning.
CTC: Are you seeing any links between organized crime and Islamist terror cells?
Grignard: So far the links we’ve uncovered are almost all to unorganized crime rather than organized crime. The link between petty crime and Islamic terror is not of course a new phenomenon. For some time we’ve seen so-called takfiris operating in Europe who justified criminality through their radical interpretation of Islam. Additionally, we saw some young Belgians with a history of delinquency joining up with al-Qa`ida in the tribal areas of Pakistan in the late 2000s. But it has now become a much bigger phenomenon. Islamic State propaganda distributed over social media has had a big accelerating effect.
As we saw with the Brussels Jewish museum shooting and the Paris kosher market attack it’s all too easy for young men with a history of criminality to get access to weapons. And petty criminality has been the main source of funding for terrorist plots since 9/11 in Europe, whether it’s stolen cars, stolen credit cards, or fraudulently applying for bank loans.
Prison radicalization is a big factor in all of this. The message of radical recruiters inside jail to Muslim inmates goes something like this: “You had no choice but to carry out criminal actions because you were part of a discriminated against community. You were only defending yourself. And if you now put yourself in service of the cause by supplying false papers and weapons, not only are these actions legitimate but they will win you redemption and reward in paradise.” It’s a message that is unfortunately resonating.
CTC: Are police in Belgium and Europe receiving the resources they need to confront the unprecedented threat?
Grignard: We don’t have the same resources as U.S. law enforcement agencies but it’s important to point out you can never provide 100 percent security. You could pour limitless funds into counterterrorism and still not stop a terrorist attack getting through. In these challenging economic times in Europe there are other competing spending priorities for governments, so it’s a question of finding the right balance. It’s important for the general public to understand the challenges we are facing. I think there’s been a lot of unfair criticism of French security services with regard to the Paris attacks. Even though the attackers were on the radar screen you cannot put more than a very limited number of people under 24/7 surveillance. To tail just a few suspects you need agents in several cars. And you’re talking about three different shifts through the day. You also need teams back in the operational center to coordinate wiretaps and file paperwork. All this amounts to hundreds of people being assigned to just one operation. Very quickly the expense becomes prohibitive.
Let me outline a scenario to explain all this. If we have, say, three extremists we are worried about, we’ll apply to a judge for wiretaps. The legal bar for this is generally higher than in the United States. For using informants it is higher still. But if we get the green light we may have to prioritize one of the three. If you’re unlucky you pick the wrong one. That’s what happened in France. They were unlucky. There are dozens of radicals on their radar screen who had the same profile as the Kouachi brothers. Belgium counterterrorism agencies were praised for thwarting the Verviers plot, but luck played its role. Tomorrow we might not be so lucky.
One factor in our favor here in Belgium is excellent cooperation between the Federal Police and our small domestic intelligence service (Sûreté de l’État). This has been vital in dismantling terrorist networks.
CTC: The Islamic State has taken propaganda to a whole new level, using a wide variety of social media outlets to quickly get their message out. What challenges does this pose?
Grignard: It’s having a powerful radicalizing effect. The number of youngsters in Belgium consuming it all day long is worrying. Thanks to the internet and social media, information now is so abundant that it becomes almost unmanageable. It is becoming steadily more difficult to map out the threat landscape. We were lucky when we started on this in the 1980s because there was no internet. We were dealing with books and pamphlets.
CTC: What challenges do you face in tracking terrorist communications?
Grignard: This is growing increasingly challenging. It’s not uncommon for a suspected member of a terrorist cell we are monitoring in Belgium to have a dozen cell phones and 40 SIM cards. And many have moved away from using the phone altogether, shifting to communicating over Skype and various VoIP’s, WhatsApp, Twitter, and online games played through video consoles. Given the fast changing technologies, it’s difficult for the police to keep up. An additional complication is that when it comes to internet communications we generally have to enlist the help of our American friends. Managing information sharing between an intelligence service of one country and a police service of another can be challenging on several fronts, including from a legal dimension, but these are the problems of friends.
CTC: Belgian officials have said up to 10 percent of Belgian foreign fighters in Syria were recruited by one group Shariah4Belgium—an offshoot of the British extremist group al-Muhajiroun. Earlier this year 45 of its members were convicted of terror-related offences in a trial in Antwerp. How concerned are Belgian authorities about this group?
Grignard: Many dismiss groups like Sharia4Belgium because they appear to be buffoons. But we shouldn’t underestimate their recruiting ability. They may speak nonsense, but they are skilled in telling their audience exactly what they want to hear. It was the same with Abu Qatada and Abu Hamza in the UK. In justifying the behavior of the Islamic State there’s always a way groups like Sharia4Belgium can twist the Islamic texts. We’re now seeing the emergence of other recruitment networks in Belgium.
CTC: Are you seeing any drop off in the numbers traveling to Syria?
Grignard: It’s difficult to tell. There are more controls on the Turkish frontier than there used to be, which has made it somewhat more difficult to reach Syria. We have started to see fighters coming back with negative accounts, but it’s not clear how big an impact this will have.
CTC: What keeps you up at night?
Grignard: Extremists launching attacks with little warning—going out and buying a Kalashnikov and shooting up a shopping center and then disappearing into the crowd before we can find them What I’ve long dreaded is starting to materialize. The Chattanooga attack on U.S. military personnel in July appears to fit this pattern. Previously we had weeks and months to intercept terrorist plots because terrorists would spend months planning an attack, buying components for a bomb and so on. It’s so much more difficult to stop this new form of terrorism.
. “Sharia4Belgium trial: Belgian court jails members,” BBC, February 11, 2015 .