A Little Incompetence Goes A Long Way

Wednesday, March 23rd, 2016

More #BrusselsAttacks here, what else? But I think you’ll be amused this time, if perhaps in a somewhat morbid way . . .

From recent personal experience, I’ve come to the view that the central taxi switchboard for Amsterdam – at least that in charge of dispatching cabs for the largest taxi company here, with the longest tenure – is hopelessly incompetent. It seems that might also be true for Brussels:

23MARHeureusement
“Luckily, the call center for the taxi company misunderstood the terrorists . . .” it reads there.

Taxis: If you have been following the whole #BrusselsAttacks thing closely, you’d be aware of the taxi story. Namely, the three fellows who carried out the attack at Zaventem airport were identified by the taxi-driver who had driven them to the airport. The funny thing about them, he reported, was that they refused to let him handle the baggage they were taking along. That baggage, of course, turned out to be the explosives that blew up within the terminal – or at least two of the three bags did.

23MARFeelLucky
(Actually, we now have further reports that that third bomb did ultimately explode – but only later, when police were in control of the arrivals hall and everyone else was evacuated, and no one at all was hurt when it did.)

Further, the same taxi-driver was glad to reverse-engineer the ride for the police’s benefit, so that that big raid that was reported yesterday evening (the evening of the attacks) in the Schaerbeck section of town actually was directed at the address from which the taxi-driver had picked these terrorists up.

But here is the rest of the story, as reported in one of the main French-language Belgian papers, La Dernière Heure (DH.be). As it turns out, the terrorists had much more baggage (i.e. explosives) than just those three pieces, as the police indeed found out when they raided that evening. They wanted to take all of their explosives to the airport, and so when calling for a taxi specifically requested a mini-bus (une camionette). But this is what was misunderstood; what they got was just a plain old taxi, with only a trunk to carry their luggage. So they could only take along those three explosive pieces – one of which, the biggest and most powerful, did not explode immediately – and not everything that they wanted, specifically a fourth explosive that was even bigger than the other three.

Indeed, says this piece, just that biggest fourth piece would have sufficed to completely blow up the entire departures hall there at Zaventem – or, alternately, “a fifth of all houses in Schaerbeck.” That last bit is definitely an exaggeration, to be sure, although there were some anxious moments during that raid as the bomb-disposal experts worked to disarm that largest, “unstable” charge.

Meanwhile, it seems that quite a few of the rank-and-file Brussels taxi drivers showed themselves willing to take stranded people home yesterday for free! But now they’re worried about all the lost business from the airport remaining closed, which it will also be tomorrow, Thursday. Also, the head of the local taxi association insists – quite rightly – that the identity of that driver who took the terrorists to the airport stay secret. That’s what the driver wants him/herself, and remember: s/he did his/her job, and then reported his/her suspicions, while it was the switchboard that demonstrated that admirable ineptitude.

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Flipping the Fried Finger

Wednesday, March 23rd, 2016

Today we’re into day one of #BrusselsAttacks recovery and we’ll see how the city reacts as its airport remains closed and with major damage, as do the main thoroughfares through the European Quarter, while the metro reopens with major holes in its structure, and the like. Actually, even at what we could call the “day one-half” point – that is, yesterday evening – there was a heartening and spontaneous mass-gathering around the Bourse, the now-unused Stock Exchange building at the center of town, where people wrote encouraging and defiant messages in chalk on the pavement and otherwise showed general solidarity (considerably aided by the fact that that part of the city was turned into a pedestrian-only zone last summer).

Further, it seems that next Sunday, Easter Sunday, there is to be a “white march” through the city, to show more solidarity, an absence of fear, etc. In that link that is the spokesman for the European Parliament in the video who is announcing it; perhaps it will be organized by that institution (which would make it not so spontaneous).

By now, though, I’ve learned to be leery of most post-terrorist attack public gestures. We saw how those could turn out with the Charlie Hebdo killings fourteen months ago, and in particular that incident’s own marche blanche down the Champs Elysées: an event meant to reassert freedom of speech in the face of murderous threats turned out to feature – in the marchers’ front row! – more national leaders responsible for beating down free speech in their own countries than you could shake a stick at. Thereafter, as treated on this very blog, the French authorities made clear that “freedom of speech” would thenceforth only be permitted along narrow lines that they allowed, namely only speech against Muslims. Sadly, I later noted how no less than Denmark seemed to be following suit.

Still, this looks like a cheeky gesture:

pommes
“Why many Belgians are posting pictures of french-fries, of all things.”

Black-yellow-red: the colors of the Belgian flag, of course. In front of that, “french” fries, which you might be aware were (probably) invented in Belgium. Finally, you might also recognize there a very familiar gesture of contempt, usually executed by the fingers of one hand.

Quite clever! – although, to be fair, the HuffPo Germany traces this original “meme” back to advertising by Burger King brought out around ten years ago – and quickly withdrawn, in the face of public outrage (in that commercial context). Still, the HuffPo piece goes on to report that “Garde la frite!” (FR: “Hold on to your french-fry!”) is French slang for “keep your chin up!”

So, all told, very appropriate, and shrewd. Nonetheless, when evaluating the effect these attacks have on Belgian society I intend to continue to focus on what is done rather than what is expressed, be it through social media emissions or city-marches. We all realize that to a large part such post-attack gestures of defiance serve to mask the fear that the attacked society feels; will that fear translate into restrictions on freedom (e.g. France’s seemingly never-ending state of emergency after the November Paris attacks) and/or useless security measures just for show, such as metal detectors stationed at the doors of subway stations? If so, then we will know that society has capitulated to what the terrorists were trying to bring about in the first place, no matter what that society says.

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A Molenbeek Near-Miss

Wednesday, December 16th, 2015

Salah Abdeslam: does that name still ring a bell? He’s the Belgian citizen thought to be among the attackers in Paris last November 13 – and the only one to have escaped alive, aided considerably by what appears to be his decision to shed the regulation suicide-vest he wore at the time and just get out of there. It’s been more than a month and he is still at large. You really have to think that, by now, he is somewhere in Syria, safe under ISIL protection.

There’s a new piece up on the website of the Luxembourg-based newspaper L’Essentiel claiming that the Brussels police came very close to nabbing Abdeslam shortly after that deadly assault. We’re talking here again about Molenbeek, that notorious quarter of central Brussels from which so many radical jihadis have originated, and not just many of those involved in the Paris attack.

Abdeslam
To be fair, L’Essentiel is just confirming a scoop first gained by the Flemish commercial television chain VTM, to the effect that Brussels police from Sunday, 15 November were fairly sure Abdeslam was sheltering inside a particular Molenbeek apartment known to be a jihadi safehouse. But they did not move in: they couldn’t, legally, because, according to this article, “House-searches are in fact forbidden by the Belgian penal code between 23.00 and 05.00 hours except in urgent cases such as fires or les flagrants délits,” that latter phrase I assume signifying cases when it is known that crimes are actually being committed there on-scene.

Neither was the case for Abdeslam hiding out there in Molenbeek, so the authorities had to wait until the next morning. By that time they went in, he had given them the slip. By the way, from the timing it is clear this report provides further insight into why Belgian authorities decided to raise the alert levels for Brussels to “Imminent Attack Expected” for that same Sunday and the following couple of days.

Very frustrating, obviously. But this is also very unfortunate from a civil liberties point-of-view. This sort of police-failure – an inability to use the powers they do have, which should be enough – inevitably will accelerate the erosion of citizens’ liberties towards the police that we have already seen too much of following those November attacks.

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Journalistic Pluck

Monday, January 12th, 2015

Yes, there was that giant Charlie Hebdo march yesterday in Paris, as well as in many other cities, but times remain tough for newspaper staffs (in physical security terms, that is – quite apart from their long-term economic prospects):

ZalKnallen
“Le Soir, things are going to blow up on your editors” is what it reads there, which was followed down the telephone-line by “You guys don’t take us seriously!” OK, so it’s a bomb-threat, called in yesterday afternoon (Sunday) to the downtown Brussels offices of Le Soir (“The Evening”) when probably most of those present would have preferred marching in Brussels own Charlie Hebdo solidarity demonstration but had to work instead.

Can’t newspapermen and -women catch a break these days? I mean, the offices of the Hamburger Morgenpost were also firebombed yesterday – yes, after that paper had reprinted some Charle Hebdo cartoons in a show of solidarity.

I don’t think Le Soir had done even that, but that seems not to have been the issue in that case. For as that De Morgen piece goes on to report, the police managed to arrest someone for that bomb-threat the same day, some fifty-two-year-old from out of the “extreme left” who in fact had been convicted for actually blowing up a telephone-booth (remember those?) in order to intimidate in Brussels back in 1999.

The good thing about this story is that the Le Soir staff, when ordered to evacuate on Sunday afternoon, simply took their laptops to a local hotel and resumed their work, as you can see from their tweet:

LeSoir

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Just Not Cricket!

Thursday, December 4th, 2014

Check out this photo, taken in Brussels, of a suspicious Muslim-type guy who for some reason is carrying under his arm what looks to be a rifle covered up in cloth. (Yes, I know that the surrounding text rather gives the game away, especially for those out there who can understand French.)

BrusselsTerrorist
There he was, waiting for a tram on a Sunday morning last August, on the Avenue Louise in one of the European capital’s most luxurious districts. This photo was taken out of the window by a security official at the Israeli embassy in Brussels who lives along the Avenue Louise, and who passed it on to the police – who in turn sent out an alert for the public to be on the look-out for this guy. (Wanted posters on post office walls and the like, one imagines, to the extent real-life post offices still exist in Brussels.) (more…)

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Cowtown Counterintelligence

Wednesday, January 12th, 2011

One behind-the-scenes development when it comes to the European Union involves the transformation over time of Brussels, its capital. The EU certainly has not yet attained the degree of political, military, financial, etc. unity and resulting power enjoyed by the United States of America, and it’s quite possible that it never will. Then again, it has certainly made great progress in these directions since the signing of the original Treaty of Rome back in 1957, and in a parallel manner Brussels has also metamorphosed in that period from a rather sleepy if historical city to an international metropolis with many of the attributes of Washington, DC (most of them to be deplored, to tell the truth): horrific traffic jams, increasing swarms of lobbyists, a non-native population from everywhere in the provinces (read: member-states) with much higher-than-average levels of both education and (recession-proof) income, etc.

Yet another aspect of Brussels hitting the “big time” lies in the realm of security, intelligence, and spying. Yes, there are now important, vital secrets buried there which intelligence services from around the world would love to ferret out, as we are reminded by a brief yet fascinating recent piece in La Dernière Heure*: Belgium bungles a European listening affair. It seems that as far back as in 2003 signs were detected of bugging devices located no less than in the Justus Lipsius Building, which is the home of the European Council (i.e. the EU organization that directly represents the interests of the member-states). In particular, the “R Committee” – “R” for renseignement or “information,” as that is the body of the Belgian parliament that supervises the country’s intelligence services – concluded that it was likely that the French, German, Spanish, and UK delegations had been bugged – i.e. most of the big boys.

By whom? Well, the piece mentions the Mossad, the (in)famous Israeli intelligence service, but no one ever found out for sure. That was mainly because Brussels is still stuck back in the provincial capital age – or perhaps we could call it the “Inspector Clouseau stage” – when it comes to effective counter-intelligence. That same “R Committee” report noted how progress in following up the initial discovery of the espionage activities was very slow, while information supplied by the responsible officials to Justice officials was incomplete. The latter just recently decided simply to drop the entire matter, as they still didn’t have anyone they could indict!

*The Dernière Heure piece generously credits its Dutch-language counterpart De Tijd with initial reports over this affair. In such cases I like to go to that original source instead and use the material there – but this time I could not find it on the De Tijd site!

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Black Entropa

Friday, January 16th, 2009

The funniest sort of scandal erupted this past week in Brussels, in connection with the brand-new (and first-time) Czech presidency of the European Union. Have you heard of this? The New York Times has its account here. It had to do with a huge sculpture that the Czech government commissioned for erection at the building that houses the European Council, one that – as you would expect – was supposed to reflect in some way upon on the EU and its member-states. But the Czechs made a key mistake in entrusting the task to the (Czech) artist David Černý. As the sculpture was set up over the weekend, for completion by Monday, it soon became clear that there was something very wrong; by the time the dedication ceremony was supposed to happen on Thursday, yesterday (and it did), controversy was flying thick and fast.

What were the Czech authorities in charge of EU relations thinking? Černý, after all (whose last name simply means “black”), has always been notorious, it’s accurate to say, rather than just “famous” within the Czech cultural world, bursting onto that scene in 1991 by painting the tank constituting a Soviet war-memorial in Prague a shocking pink color in one daring night-time raid. Although he was briefly arrested for that, that pink tank became a metaphor for the wacky, world-turned-upside down ambiance of the Czech Republic, and Prague in particular, in the years immediately after the 1989 “Velvet Revolution.” Barely pausing to catch his breath, Černý went on to produce a series of additional eye-catching works of sculpture, a few of which you can appreciate on his Wikipedia page. Those “tower babies,” for example: you can pick them out crawling all over the gigantic TV tower, itself located in the Prague 3 district, from much of the rest of the city. And that “riding a dead horse” statue is mighty big and impressive in its own right – look for it at the internal shopping-and-movie-theater-area located within the Lucerna building at the corner of Wenceslas Square and Vodičkova Street (a magnificent building once owned by Václav Havel himself, built by his father – also named Václav Havel). (more…)

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Nothing Really to Celebrate

Tuesday, July 22nd, 2008

As I noted in this previous post, July 21 – yesterday – is each year the Belgian National Holiday: think along the lines, for example, of the 4th of July in the US. Except that yesterday in Belgium the occasion was more like America on 4 July 1860: then, Abraham Lincoln had just been nominated to be the Republican Party candidate for the upcoming presidential election in November, and it was evident that, while he had a good chance of sweeping the more-populated Northern states with his party platform forbidding any more slavery in US territories, nobody in the South would vote for him. Indeed, if he turned out to win the presidency nonetheless (which of course he did), there was very likely to be serious trouble, yet it was hard to think of any alternative scenario by which the presidency could be won by any of the other candidates, each of which were politicians backed by yet-narrower sections of the country. Likewise, there was precious little of any “national” nature to be celebrated in Belgium on its “National Holiday” yesterday, even as one can assume that any similar implicit prospect of violence does not apply in this modern case.

When last we left portly, avuncular old King Albert II, he had received Prime Minister Yves Leterme’s resignation but had yet to decide whether to accept it. (more…)

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The Failed Brussels EU Summit

Sunday, December 14th, 2003

The decisive EU summit in Brussels this weekend to work out a final text of a Constitutional Treaty failed to achieve that aim. As had been expected, the principal stumbling-block was the question of the voting regime to be used for passing measures within the Council of Ministers by a “qualified majority”; both Poland and Spain stuck firmly to their demand that the current voting system, inaugurated by the December, 2000 Nice Treaty, be retained, while other states – principally the EU’s two biggest players, Germany and France – were equally as adamant that a new “double majority” system, proposed in the new Constitution, be implemented. But there were other points that had to be left for later resolution as well, as we’ll see. (more…)

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Countdown to the Brussels Summit IV: Fear and Trepidation

Friday, December 12th, 2003

Going into the first day of the EU’s Brussels summit on Friday, the one that is supposed to result in an agreed-upon text for a new Constitutional Treaty, most of the European press is not in an optimistic mood that such an agreement can be reached. The word “miracle” (in whichever local language variant) – as in, what that will likely require – figures prominently in many headlines.

For a review of that European press coverage, I think I’ll just refer you to Deutsche Welle’s English-language “European Press Review” (a link that I myself found out about from the scottymac blog). At least they also cover Austria and Italy, which I don’t, but do allow me to mention the essential superficiality of that press review, in light of the comprehensive reading that I’ve already done of the treatment in today’s European press of the run-up to the summit. (more…)

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Countdown to the Brussels Summit I: Irritation at Poland

Monday, December 8th, 2003

Last week, while we here at EuroSavant were obsessing over the previous Sunday’s draw for the European Football Championship next summer, Polish Prime Minister Leszek Miller and several of his entourage were victims of a helicopter crash while returning to Warsaw from a visit to Silesia (the southwest part of Poland). No one was killed, but Miller himself sustained serious injuries to his back, and Polish newspapers all ran a photograph recently showing him lying in a hospital bed, all bandaged up although otherwise looking as hardy and self-composed as usual, with President Aleksander Kwasniewski sitting alongside.

According to Miller, his injuries won’t prevent him from attending the climactic EU summit in Brussels over the draft Constitution coming up this weekend, even if he has to show up there in a body-cast. In a recent analysis entitled The Poles Are Europe’s New Nay-Sayers, the Danish newspaper Berlingske Tidende points out that what is likely to be waiting for him there, at the least, are marathon negotiating sessions stretching long into the night “which can force even healthy politicians to their knees.” And that even means “healthy politicians” whose member-states have mainly stayed on the sidelines during the Intergovernmental Conference (IGC), remaining above the acrimony. For the main protagonist in the process that the Poles have become, on the other hand, the coming days can be expected to bring not only long nights but also intense pressure. (more…)

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Czech Press: “At a Dead End”

Monday, October 20th, 2003

The Czech on-line press has not paid too much attention to the recent Brussels EU summit. The exception is Hospodarske noviny, the country’s leading business newspaper. HN is no more impressed by the results out of Brussels than were the French or Dutch press; the headline reads International Conference Is As Yet at a Dead End. In fact, the article reminds us that things have bogged down this way despite four EU meetings intended to get things moving with the approval of the EU Constitution: There were the summits of heads of state/government in Rome and now in Brussels, yes, but each of those also had a meeting of EU foreign ministers attached to it, namely at Rome and Luxembourg. And so far – nothing.

As you would expect, a specifically-Czech tidbit is thrown into Hospodarske noviny’s reporting: Czech foreign minister Cyril Svoboda has been lobbying at these events to prevent the EU “Minister of Foreign Affairs,” envisaged in the draft Constitution, from actually having that title. According to Svoboda, much better would be something less grandiose, like “Foreign Policy Representative.” “Minister,” you see, implies a sovereign state – and we don’t want to give any support to the notion that this Constitution will in any way create a sovereign state. (Actually, within the Czech Republic it is primarily President Václav Klaus and his opposition ODS party who are sticklers on points such as this; Svoboda’s campaign reflects his government’s weak position in the Czech legislature, which forces that government to keep the ODS sweet by taking up its causes in this way at the EU level.)

The HN article speaks of a compromise “package” that EU President Silvio Berlusconi undertook at the Brussels summit to fashion, which would be examined by the EU foreign ministers’ meeting in Rome on 28/29 November, to prepare it hopefully for acceptance at the end-of-presidency EU summit of 12/13 December. It also mentions the mid-November “mini-summit” that Berlusconi wanted to hold to help him along with this; but that last bit has probably by now been overtaken by events, given the reluctance to meet yet again on the part of EU government heads that emerged in the French and Dutch press.

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Flood of Brussels Complaints in Dutch Press

Saturday, October 18th, 2003

If the Dutch on-line press is any indication, opinion in the Netherlands over the results of the just-completed European summit in Brussels (which was supposed to make progress towards a final European Constitution) is no higher than in France (covered in the following entry). Indeed, these articles offer some key updates to developments. (more…)

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Wasted (Brussels) Days and Wasted (Brussels) Nights (French View)*

Saturday, October 18th, 2003

Bad news for EU taxpayers, at least those who rather expect some concrete results from their representatives at European Union fora in return for the tax-euros they are paid. (Come on now – could anyone really be so naïve?) I know you recall that EU summit in Brussels that took place yesterday and the day before – Chirac also spoke for Germany during yesterday’s session, remember? (Covered in €S from both the French and German points-of-view.) That was nice, a great symbolic gesture and all that, but more pertinent might be the fact that little of note was actually accomplished. At least so the French on-line papers say. (more…)

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And a German Dispute Eastwards . . .

Thursday, May 8th, 2003

Once again Iraq is causing divisions within NATO. This time it’s between the Poles and the Germans. In one respect, this is nothing new: Chancellor Schröder’s SPD-Green administration had always made it clear that it would not support a war in Iraq, in any way, even if it were given official United Nations approval – e.g. if the so-called “Second Resolution” had passed the Security Council. On the other hand, Poland was one of the few nations (the others including only Australia and Albania) to actually send troops to contribute to the military effort of the War in Iraq. In fact, Polish commandos did some rather good work in securing Iraqi oil platforms offshore in the Persian Gulf once hostilities got under way.

But the war phase is now over, and the occupation phase has begun. (more…)

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The EU Gang of Four – Part III

Friday, May 2nd, 2003

Germany was the odd-man-out at the recent defense summit between the German and French presidents and Belgian and Luxembourgian premiers: Chancellor Schröder’s government has been the one trying the hardest for a rapprochement with the American administration after the divisions caused by the War in Iraq. Indeed, as Anke Bryson notes in the Frankfurter Algemeine Zeitung Weekly, both Schröder and his foreign minister Joschka Fischer wanted to keep this “mini-summit” a low-profile affair, out of respect for the sensibilities of the Bush Administration – “but the publicity damage had already been done.”

We’ve seen how elements of the French press took this meeting seriously, while the Belgian press was more cynical, doubting that anything would ever come of this summit taking place on its own soil. Whatever the sotto voce protestations of German officials, they did accept the invitation to attend the Brussels meeting and did show up there. It’s time to check the German press’ reactions. (more…)

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The EU Gang of Four – Part II

Thursday, May 1st, 2003

Belgium provided the locale for this week’s meeting of the German, French, Belgian, and Luxembourgian heads of state to discuss the new European defense initiative. What do the Belgian papers have to say? (more…)

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The EU Gang of Four – Part I

Wednesday, April 30th, 2003

The heads of state of France, Germany, Belgium, and Luxembourg met yesterday in Brussels to launch a new European defense initiative for a multinational force to flesh out the European Union’s foreign and security policies. Presidents Chirac and Schröder and Prime Ministers Verhofstadt and Juncker took pains to emphasize that they were not acting against NATO nor against that alliance’s senior partner, the United States.

Of course, besides Luxembourg, it is true that these were the European countries in the forefront of opposition to America and its “coalition of the willing” as they undertook their assault on Iraq. And many do intrepret this as an anti-NATO gesture – the Times of London‘s foreign editor Bronwen Maddox speaks of a “direct hit on Nato” and “payback time” for these four countries. What do the countries involved have to say for themselves? (more…)

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