by Stephen Bryen*
EDITOR’S NOTE: Because of the interest this article has generated, I have added a set of Questions and Answers at the end of the article.
Europe is in a war but it does not seem to know it. Neither does NATO which has not been called upon to fight the war. All of this is very strange, because the turmoil being caused by ISIS in Europe poses a considerable threat to peace and security.
President Obama, as is well known, does not think too much of the ISIS threat anywhere, thinking it is not existential. But the truth is otherwise. ISIS was planning an attack on a Belgian nuclear reactor and was collecting data on other nuclear installations. Extensive ISIS-made surveillance film captured by police shows dramatic evidence that ISIS was well along on organizing such action.
There are different theories about the ISIS objective or objectives. These include: (1) blowing up a nuclear facility; (2) stealing radioactive material for a “dirty” bomb; (3) kidnapping nuclear officials and holding them for ransom; (4) sabotaging power plants and cause them either to go off line or to be made unrepairable; (5) crashing an airplane into one of the power plants in Belgium.
Two of the bombers who attacked Zaventem, the Brussels international airport, apparently were airport employees so they could enter the facility with an employee pass and avoid inspection. Had they chosen to do so, they could have allowed hijackers into the airport.
There isn’t any doubt that ISIS has penetrated critical infrastructure facilities in Belgium including its nuclear power plants. At least two Jihadists employed at the Doel nuclear plant left Belgium for Syria to fight with ISIS. One of the men, Ilyass Boughalab, is believed to have been killed in Syria and another was briefly jailed for terrorism in 2014 before disappearing.
Last November there was an unexplained explosion at the Doel Nuclear Power Station, which caused significant damage.
Overall the security situation at critical infrastructure facilities in Belgium is terrible. Israeli security had warned the country about the airport, but to no effect. Turkish authorities repeatedly warned about the suicide bombers and their colleagues, who they twice deported. Again to no effect. Others are keeping quiet, but it is likely Brussels got many more warnings and just sat on its hands.
The abysmal security situation in Europe is a major threat not only to all the nearby European capitals, but it is a threat to the United States and many others, especially if there was a nuclear incident. When Chernobyl melted down, there were major leaks of radioactive material into Europe. Even as recently as this year, 29 years after the disaster, forest fires in Ukraine have spread radioactive debris into Europe as far north as Scandinavia and Italy. The danger of a local nuclear plant explosion in the heart of Europe could impact millions, because the area is much more densely populated than Chernobyl in the northern Ukraine.
It is fairly clear that police and law enforcement authorities in Belgium and in the rest of Europe too lack any real ability to deal with the local terrorist threat, itself now being reinforced as ISIS and other Jihadists flood into Europe. It is foolish to depend on local law enforcement anywhere in Europe. Either they lack the manpower, know how, training, or political support, or all of the above, to handle the situation. This leaves Europe a ticking time bomb.
What is needed is a military intervention managed by NATO. Isn’t it odd that NATO folks have no lack of enthusiasm to go bomb folks in Libya, Iraq and Syria, but have nothing to say about the threat at their very doorstep. NATO has not held one meeting about confronting the ISIS threat in Europe or even declaring war on this terrorist organization.
How could NATO help? There are five major steps a NATO intervention can achieve:
1. Supply a multinational force to fight ISIS within Europe. This is highly important because a multinational force is less likely to be swayed by corrupt politicians and weak administration. The force has the equipment in the form of armored vehicles, drones, helicopters, communications to carry out all the needed tasks. Putting NATO in charge puts professionals on the job and commits everyone to the goal of eliminating ISIS.
2. Assures far better targeting and coordination by bringing professional military command and control assets into play to fight the threat. This will immediately result in a huge improvement in going after targets and neutralizing them.
3. Assures more professional and decisive action against terrorists including putting in place emergency military courts to try those who are captured and incarcerate them with very long prison terms. There is ample precedent for this based on the Nuremberg Military Tribunal. In 1945 it charged those involved in crimes against humanity, which fits ISIS perfectly. The definition is as follows: “Crimes against humanity: murder, extermination, enslavement, deportation, and other inhumane acts committed against civilian populations, before or during the war; or persecutions on political, racial or religious grounds in execution of or in connection with any crime within the jurisdiction of the Tribunal, whether or not in violation of the domestic law of the country where perpetrated.”
4. Puts professional military protection over critical infrastructure assets including nuclear power plants, nuclear industry, railroad, metro and airports, communications hubs, water supply and food distribution, and essential government agencies. This means NATO will guard critical facilities and provide alert and warning services as to any threat. NATO would also carry out checks on employees and others with access to critical facilities to ferret out ISIS infiltrators and spies.
5. Deploys forces and intelligence assets across national borders to shut down ISIS links and break the back of their organization. This contrasts today where internal law enforcement groups often fight among themselves even in their own country and fail to effectively cooperate across national boundaries.
These steps are how to fight ISIS in Europe. This should be the first priority of any self-respecting European government, and it should be the first duty of NATO to go after ISIS on its own territory. This is the only practical way to get rid of this threat.
Questions and Answers on NATO Fighting ISIS in Europe
A lot of interest and many questions have been asked about my article Use Nato to Fight ISIS in Europe.
1. Would Using NATO be very costly?
No, the NATO countries are already maintaining forces in Europe (including the United States). Putting them to work in Europe would not add much more in the way of cost.. NATO already has equipment, armored vehicles, command posts, communications to do the job.
2. Would the Europeans support the use of NATO?
It is hard to tell how Europe will react. Until now the case has not been made and European countries have been relying on law enforcement in each country. It has been a total failure and the danger has escalated. What is most needed is for European leaders to understand just how great a risk they face. NATO could start immediately by gathering the necessary intelligence and presenting it to Europe’s leaders. The intelligence will say the risk is to the way of life of Europe, because threats to nuclear power stations and critical infrastructure are very severe. By now the Germans, French and Belgians understand that their failures are stimulating the rise of fascist political parties and serious unrest. If they go on this way much longer, there may be no way to turn back or stabilize the situation.
European societies today are, if you want to label them, neo-socialist and liberal in attitude. Individual countries have surrendered much of their sovereignty to the European Union which has had the perverse impact of allowing individual government leaders to lead less, or to defer to Europe (as if it were a real sovereign entity) instead of taking responsibility for countering societal threats. This has created a law and order vacuum of dire proportions. No European country has empowered law enforcement, taken steps to assure cross-border cooperation, or done anything to stop both the flow of terrorists and the flow of weapons into their territories. The availability of military grade explosives, rapid fire weapons, and secure communications systems has given terrorist organizations more capability than law enforcement, which is why NATO forces are needed to re-balance enforcement of law and order.
3. How Would NATO Operate?
NATO troops would be deployed in two ways. First to provide protection for critical infrastructure assets starting with nuclear power plants. Second to gain control over neighborhoods where the terrorist threat is concentrated.
Of course this requires three things: (1) a decent plan; (2) clearance to take control over specific entities and areas that must be granted by the national government; (3) the right to arrest and deport terrorist threats under military law.
It will be important to work with local law enforcement, but leadership must be with NATO during the authorized period of their operations. A one year program makes sense since not everything can be done at once.
NATO already has experience working against terrorist operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. It knows how to organize information and how to act on it; how to create safe zones; and how to deal with threats such as suicide bombers and IEDs.
4. Can NATO operate legally on European territory?
NATO’s article five can be invoked whenever there is an attack on one of the members warranting NATO action and approved by NATO members.
A recent precedent was when the United States asked for NATO support after the September 11 (9/11) terror attacks in New York and Washington DC. NATO responded with (mostly symbolic) help such as flying AWACS over US territory. But the idea was absolutely right. This time, of course, real muscle and determination are the order of the day. It is, however, completely in NATO’s terms of reference to carry out this task.
5. Why is NATO a better option than local law enforcement?
Local law enforcement does not operate across national boundaries and has been restricted by politicians and by absurdly restrictive laws. In Belgium, for example, law enforcement cannot go after a terrorist target in a home at night. This means that the night is owned by the terrorists and they can move around and set up attacks that can be executed in daylight or in the evening at their option.
NATO also will work under military rules of engagement making it far more effective than law enforcement where the concern sometimes is collecting evidence instead of stopping terrorists. There is a war in Europe, plain and simple. War invokes different rules than peacetime.
6. Where are the main problems?
The main areas of urgent concern are in Belgium and France, where the police and special forces lack the equipment and experience to deal with organized terrorist activity. One only has to look at the mess that was made in France during the Paris attacks, or watch videos of French police running away from gangs threatening them, to understand that they are not up to the job.
Of course Belgium and France are not the only countries with severe problems. Germany, Denmark, Holland and the UK are also in the cross hairs of the terrorists and there are problems elsewhere, notably Italy and Greece.
NATO needs to work against the worst areas first and foremost and set up units to run down the arms runners and smugglers. Military prison camps will be needed and military tribunals should be established to assess guilt and put the criminals behind bars.
7. What About Infiltration of Terrorists in Critical Infrastructure Institutions?
It is clear that employees in sensitive industries –railroads, power plants, airports, water treatment facilities –even hospitals and schools- need to be checked. This means putting in place a coherent review system and coordinating with intelligence agencies and police. No one knows just how much of the critical infrastructure has been penetrated, but it appears on the information that has so far emerged that some, such as Belgian nuclear plants, are compromised.
8. What about Hate Preaching?
Hate preaching has to stop as does active recruiting for terrorist organizations. This means clamping down on those who preach hatred in all its forms, just as the Italians recently have done. It also means shutting down ISIS and other Jihadist communications on the Internet, through emails and SMS (and SMS-like) messaging. Active measures of this sort are needed and allowing these means of communications to continue is against the national interest of all free nations.
9. Stopping Illegal Arms and Explosives?
It was only in 2014 that Europe started to address traffic in illegal arms, and mostly that was just to collect information. Like the United States, there are a lot of illegal guns in Europe –most recent estimates put the number at some 67 million weapons!
Guns and explosives and other weapons are smuggled across open borders, are easily smuggled, and are purchased at relatively low cost from intermediaries and dealers. A fairly high number of transactions occur on the “Dark Net” which is that undocumented part of the Internet where criminals and terrorists operated.
At present there is no concerted effort to clean up the mess. A NATO-run effort and real border controls are badly needed, just as are checks at ports and harbors, rail transit, and airports.
10. What happens when NATO completes its work?
For Europe to combat terrorism in the long run new institutions are needed and domestic laws need to be revised. NATO can stop the bleeding and buy time for a solution, but in and of itself it is not a long term solution.
*Stephen Bryen is the author of Technology Security and National Power: Winners and Losers (Transaction Publishers, 2015)