By Dimitar Georgiev
The dusts of the terrorist attack in Brussels on 22 March have not yet settled, but that has not prevented pundits from proclaiming their opinions on what went wrong: blaming Europe's open borders, accusing the lack of police cooperation within the European Union, pointing the finger at Belgian law enforcement, and even calling into question the future of the European project itself. What is missing, however, is a full understanding of what happened, why it happened, and what reforms would be most effective in ensuring this does not happen again without jeopardizing European values.
The people of Belgium, in fact all the people of Europe, need an investigative commission, much like the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States (9/11 Commission) formed by the U.S. Congress in the wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Initially opposed by President George W. Bush, the Commission and its 80 full-time staffers conducted probably the most sweeping investigation of a terror act in history. After a two-year inquiry, the report released on July 22, 2004 formed the most comprehensive account of the events of 9/11 and identified key areas for government action and reform. The most sweeping security and intelligence reforms in the United States, including enhanced airport security, intelligence sharing, and a new government agency (Department of Homeland Security), came as a result of the findings of the Commission.
Modeled after the 9/11 Commission, a 2016 Brussels Terrorist Attacks Commission should be chartered and funded under the auspices of the European Union. The top-down approach is necessary in order to facilitate the investigation across member states and to serve as an honest arbiter of the facts. National governments, and their institutions and officials, will have a key function, of course, but the investigation has to be European in scope and neutral in its analysis. The increasing number and intensity of terrorist attacks in Europe has shown that individual governments do not have the resources sufficient to fight the threat of terrorism on their own.
Like the 9/11 Commission, the Brussels Commission must be equally comprehensive in its investigation. However, it is of critical importance that the Brussels Commission not be an avenue for assigning blame or finger-pointing. Instead, Europeans and their leaders first need to know what happened. At its core, the investigation would be an effort to determine the basic facts. Who were the perpetrators? What, if any, were their links to international terrorist organizations? Did they travel across borders? The list goes on.
The attacks also seemed to have been carefully planned and initial reports suggest a close link with the Paris attacks in November 2015. Turkish authorities claimed to have previously arrested one of the suicide bombers. The Brussels attacks are only the latest in a string of assaults in Western Europe over the past year, including Charlie Hebdo in January 2015, the foiled Thalys train attack in August, and the Paris massacre in November. The decisions made by security services, not just in Belgium, but across the continent must be a major part of the inquiry. How information was shared between the intelligence and law enforcement agencies of various EU nations? Were their responses coordinated? What institutional obstacles, if any, did they encounter in the course of their work? The ultimate goal of a Brussels Commission is to propose ways in which European institutions can be strengthened in order to meet this evolving threat.
A Brussels Commission can only be successful if its work is shielded from political pressures. Thus, it must be independent from national governments, their politicians, and interests groups. Although it will be accountable to the political leadership of the European Union, the members of the Brussels Commission themselves should not be subjected to the pressures of elected office, either at the national or European level. Instead, as with the 9/11 Commission, the full-time staffers have to be established researchers in a myriad of fields, such as terrorism and counterterrorism, policing and intelligence, and governance.
The Brussels Commission team would also benefit from the expertise of American counterparts who were part of the 9/11 Commission. The value of such experience should not be underestimated. Washington is home to many skilled and well-respected think tanks, and has a non-governmental research apparatus unmatched anywhere in the world. Equally important is the expertise the U.S. Intelligence Community would be able to contribute to the work of the Brussels Commission.
The attacks in Brussels on 22 March delivered a blow that was aimed not just against the citizens of Belgium and their beautiful capital. The attack was against the Capital of our European Union, the unfinished experiment that brings us together and binds us, that lifts us and makes us better. The fear and anxiety, felt across the continent, of the unknown, of the unexpected, and of the unpredictable is understandable. The role of our European political leaders is to remain steadfast and resist the natural human inclination to retreat from daunting challenges. That is what terrorists aim to do - to scare and divide. Today, we care for our wounded and bury our dead. But tomorrow, we must renew our determination to confront the threats facing our common European society head on. We must reaffirm our resolve to continue building and perfecting our Union and upholding its core values - freedom, the rule of law, and respect for human rights.
Dimitar Georgiev is a global strategy and operations analyst at the Crumpton Group LLC, where he specializes in emerging markets in the Middle East and Africa, global trade, and technology. He is also a 2016 International Trade Fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy.