WASHINGTON — The Islamic State and the Levant was planning the Paris attacks as far back as 2012, according to new information revealed by Belgian police. But the information about the group’s intentions never made it to authorities in France.
In a report by Het Laatste Nieuws and other Belgian press, authorities in April of 2012 used wiretaps to listen in on conversations at an apartment in the Molenbeek neighborhood of Brussels. Several ISIL operatives directly connected to Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the ringleader of the Paris attacks, were in the room.
European intelligence sources confirm that police issued a report warning of suspicious activity and noted they overheard a discussion about attacks against Western democracy and ways to get access to weapons and explosives.
But the problem, as Belgian authorities have admitted, was they were inundated by the volume of information pouring out and were unable to connect the dots.
“The Belgium investigators were rather overwhelmed by just how much activity was going on and how much information was available, and it was just a seismic security event of course in Europe last November,” Rob Wainwright, director of Europol, told WTOP.
One-hundred thirty people were killed and hundreds wounded in the attacks throughout Paris. Since then, police in Belgium have arrested almost a dozen people — many of whom lived in Molenbeek, a well-known haven for extremists. All are charged with facilitating the Paris attacks.
Even though they triggered numerous alarms over the years, they were not arrested. With encrypted communications, robust social media platforms and an understanding of how to avoid detection, they successfully planned the attack in Paris.
As a result, Europol has created a new intelligence hub, called the European Counter Terrorism Center, to make sure it doesn’t happen again. Europol is the European Union’s law enforcement agency. Its main goal is to help member states in their fight against serious international crime and terrorism.
“Our ambition is for the European Counter Terrorism Centre to become a central information hub in the fight against terrorism in the EU, providing analysis for ongoing investigations and contributing to a coordinated reaction in the event of major terrorist attacks,” Wainwright said.
A key target for the center is terrorist recruiting.
“At the heart of the new ECTC is a European-wide Internet referral unit where we’re working everyday with the social media platform providers and the police community as a whole around Europe, to operate as a single place where we can help the social media platform providers identify and take that material down as soon as possible,” Wainwright said.
The problem in Belgium is not just a massive amount of information pouring at police, but numerous police organizations operating separately.
Francoise Schepmans, Mayor of the Molenbeek district of Brussels has told reporters that the city has six unique police agencies and 19 districts.
To meet that challenge, the ECTC is operating the Secure Information Exchange Network Application, which facilitates secure and user-friendly communication and exchange of operational and strategic crime-related information and intelligence between Europol, member states and third parties that have cooperation agreements with Europol.
The attacks and subsequent discovery that the ringleaders were known to Belgian authorities led to stinging criticism. But Wainwright defended them saying the massive amount of activity and information “would’ve challenged any authority, at any agency.”
He also pushed back against allegations that French and Belgian authorities were not sharing intelligence with each other.
“I think there’s been some unfair media hype around the nature of the cooperation between Belgium and France. As far as I can see it’s very close,” said Wainwright.