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Are Belgian Attacks The Result Of Intelligence Failures?


And we're going to hear now from someone who has spent a good bit of his career trying to combat terrorism. It's Juan Zarate. He was deputy national security adviser for combating terrorism under President George W. Bush. Good morning to you.

JUAN ZARATE: Good morning, David.

GREENE: The last words there, encouraging people to stand tall in Brussels and across Europe - what do you - what would you tell Europeans about - about how they should stand tall at a moment like this?

ZARATE: Well, I think that's an important message. The message of resilience in the face of this horrific attack, as well as potentially more that may be coming, is an important political message, a societal message. But I think one of the realities that European authorities have to face is, as President Hollande of France said, Europe is at war. And Europe now has to be on a war footing. That means understanding the threats that are emerging with these networks, getting at these deep pockets of radicalization that have enabled these networks to persist and coalescing with United States and other partners to diminish the reach and capabilities of ISIS, which is clearly more capable and more intent on hitting Europe than most thought.

GREENE: Well, you say at war - I mean, Defense Secretary Ash Carter, responding to what some are calling for, which is military strikes, he's saying military strikes in Syria won't do much to change sort of the actions of attackers on the ground in Europe. I mean, do you agree with that? Or what can be done? What should be done in this war?

ZARATE: Well, I think first and foremost, it's a sense of urgency around everything that has to be done in a counterterrorism context. That's everything from information sharing between countries, breaking down walls as we did in the United States post-9/11 in a way that allows not only European authorities but European and other countries to share information, for example, about the thousands of foreign fighters that have flown into Iraq and Syria and many of which have come back and are now parts of these networks. It involves dealing with the ideology that is animating these networks. These deep pockets in neighborhoods like Molenbeek, that have allowed for the narrative of these terrorist groups to take hold and to draw adherence.

GREENE: That's a neighborhood in Brussels we're talking about, that - where some extremists have been known to be - to be hiding.

ZARATE: Exactly. In places like Belgium, groups like Sharia for Belgium, which for years have been trying to radicalize individuals, that's a deeply embedded problem in places like Belgium and France. But you're right. There is a physical component to this. The reality is the Islamic State continues to grow in places like Libya, well beyond Iraq and Syria. And those capabilities have allowed the Islamic State to quicken its adaptations and present a more direct threat to the West than I think most had assumed.

GREENE: Would military strikes - more military strikes on ISIS be effective?

ZARATE: Well, I think it depends on where. But I think the reality is we've got to quicken how we think about how we're disrupting the Islamic State's ability to operate. They still operate in major cities in the Middle East. They still occupy Mosul, the second-largest city in Iraq. They occupy now Sirte, along the Mediterranean coast of Libya. This is an organization that despite all the efforts to date, which have been important and have been improving, still controls territory and is still able to deploy operatives back into the heart of Europe to launch sophisticated, strategic attacks, frankly, that have now paralyzed yet another European city. That is something that will persist and continue until ISIS and its safe haven is disrupted.

GREENE: Let me just ask you; I mean, we're talking about things like better information-sharing in intelligence. This is something the United States was working on after 9/11. The U.S. works with European countries. Can you blame people for wondering why things haven't improved enough yet to avoid an attack like yesterday's?

ZARATE: This is a bigger problem than the Europeans have assumed. And sometimes you need a shock to the system. And Paris and Brussels are exactly that shock to the system to improve the information-sharing and the disruption that has to happen for counterterrorism to work. But the reality is the enemy, ISIS, has grown more sophisticated. They have individuals operating very deeply and well in European societies. They're communicating securely. And this - this is a very difficult problem with blind spots for not just the Europeans but American and other authorities.

GREENE: OK. We've been speaking with Juan Zarate, the former deputy national security adviser under George W. Bush and also an adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Thanks so much for joining us this morning.

ZARATE: Thank you, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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