In 2007, I was a two-star general in charge of operations for the U.S. Army in Europe. My job was overseeing preparation and deployment of our forces to Iraq, Afghanistan and Kosovo; planning for contingency operations in Europe and the Levant; transforming our bases and presence in Europe; and a variety of other responsibilities. One of my jobs centered on “force protection.”
Force protection requires the collection of intelligence from human and technical sources. If we perceived potential threats to military personnel, their families or the mission, we would inform, coordinate and act with European governments to prevent those attacks. Those plots might entail a bomb threat, an attempted entry into a base or housing entry by an unauthorized source, or a variety of criminal and terrorist cell activities threatening the security of our forces or our host nation.
In the spring of 2007, an alert guard reported some individuals he believed were conducting reconnaissance outside one of our bases. Through prolonged technical and human monitoring and a series of counterterrorist actions, we determined these three individuals might be part of a cell from the terrorist organization known as the Islamic Jihad Union. IJU was linked to al Qaeda.
They had conducted successful attacks in Uzbekistan, Pakistan and Western Europe, and we soon determined three operatives — two Germans and one Turk, who had converted and sworn themselves to jihad — had plans to attack Frankfurt Airport and several U.S. military bases.
The detailed story of what led to arrests and the thwarting of the plot is interesting but most of it remains classified. What I remember is the intense and continuous coordination that occurred between the U.S. European Command in Stuttgart, our U.S. Army Europe Headquarters in Heidelberg, several multi-lettered U.S., German and French federal intelligence agencies, Germany’s Criminal Police (the BKA and its counterterrorism element the GSG), and two different German local/state Polizei detachments.
The attack was stopped just days before its planned execution.
Unfortunately, attacks were not stopped in Paris a few months ago, and attacks were not stopped in Belgium this week. In both these recent cases, there were no lucky breaks in counterterrorism reconnaissance, there was no timely preattack human or technical intelligence collection.
As I’ve watched journalists, authors of books on terrorism, and intel analysts assessing the post-attack situation, it has struck me that there are few who have faced the challenge of fusing all elements of intelligence or were required to coordinate the actions of diverse federal, state and local government agencies. And there are even fewer who were called to make the decision to deploy the necessary forces to prevent an attack.
Putting all of this together is much harder than it looks. It requires massive and continuous intelligence collection and analysis, tactical and operational skill, savvy command and control, conscientious application of leadership, and relentless cooperation and coordination between layers of government within a nation, and between the governments of different countries. And even with all that, it takes guts to make the tough calls.
Then, there are other things that add to the complexities of fighting terrorism.
There are over 40 countries in Europe (only 26 are part of NATO) in multiple areas with different security concerns.
Western Europe – where we find Belgium, Luxembourg, Netherlands, France, Germany and a few others — has been and continues to be a destination for refugees from the African colonial wars of the ’50s and ’60s, and more recently a destination of migrants from Turkey, Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria.
Southern Europe — Greece, Italy, Turkey, the Balkans, Southern France — are where refugees transit from the Middle East and Africa.
Finally there is Eastern Europe, where nations like Poland, Ukraine, Romania, Hungary, Bulgaria, Georgia and the Baltics, and others are spared the influx of refugees but are more concerned about an expanding and threatening Russia.
Each nation has different intelligence, military and security capabilities; all are influenced by a variety of political and social factors. There are over 70 languages and dialects across these 40 countries, and a variety of levels of police and intelligence forces.
As journalists and analysts discuss the challenges of sharing intelligence on terrorists who are part of the diaspora and who are reinforced by Islamists returning from Middle Eastern battlefields, transiting the multiple borders of the European Union and the Schengen Zone, I conclude the challenges we faced in our 2007 handling of a small three-person IJU cell were simple.
The dangers being faced by European nations as they attempt to counter these threats will require cooperation, coordination and capabilities like we have never seen before.
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling is a national security, intelligence and terrorism analyst for CNN. He served for 37 years, including three years in combat, retiring as commanding general of U.S. Army, Europe and 7th Army. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely his.