National Security

Brussels terror attack is another crisis for troubled Europe

Terror in Brussels: A Timeline of Horror

A location-by-location breakdown of Tuesday’s terrorist attacks in Brussels.
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A location-by-location breakdown of Tuesday’s terrorist attacks in Brussels.

In recent days, Belgian politicians had been warning of a heightened terror threat in Brussels after the arrest of one of the prime players in the November attacks in Paris.

In fact, after his arrest, Salah Abdeslam, 26, admitted that he’d been planning attacks in Brussels, and police recovered weapons indicating that he was telling the truth.

So Tuesday morning, shortly after 9 a.m., when explosions rocked the city, the targets couldn’t have been less surprising: the check-in counters at the busy Brussels Airport and the Maelbeek subway stop near the offices of the European Parliament and the European Commission.

Airports and subways are classic terror targets – easily reached, crowded and lightly guarded. Even the timing, rush hour on mass transit, was predictable – commuters aboard public transit were bombed in Madrid in 2004 and London in 2005.

At least 30 people have died after explosions in Brussels, Belgium. Federal police confirmed that an explosion occurred at Maalbeek metro station near the European Union institution buildings. After the explosion, some people on board trains evacu

Yet the attacks went off. As Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel said after the attacks: “What we feared has happened.”

Few states in Western Europe are strangers to unconventional violence of one form or another: there is, regrettably nothing qualitatively new in attacks of this nature.”

Lee Jarvis, author of nine books on terrorism.

Europe today is under siege, and the Islamic State, in claiming responsibility for the 34 deaths and scores of injured in Brussels, promised more to come. “Germany is next,” the Islamic State’s statement vowed.

An attack in Brussels, home to the headquarters of the European Union, was particularly troubling. “This was an attack on all of Europe,” French President Francois Hollande said Tuesday.

And it’s not just terrorists besieging the continent. Europe is in trouble on many levels. The EU is struggling. Its currency, the euro, is wobbly. Greece, a member, seems broken. France often looks to be breaking. The British are threatening to leave. Russia is working hard to undermine the EU, funding nationalist political parties whose goals include breaking up the union.

All against a backdrop of a burgeoning refugee crisis that began with flight from Libya, then became, starting nearly a year ago, wave after wave of Syrians, Iraqis, Afghans and others, fleeing from Turkey to Greece and then by land primarily to Germany, more than a million people in all.

Add to that, terror attacks that have come with unprecedented frequency: first in Paris, in January 2015, when three gunmen killed 17 at a satirical newspaper. Then came attacks in Tunisia and Mali that killed British and French tourists. In November, came the worst attack in modern French history, gunmen killed 130 people in Paris in a violent rampage across the city. Tuesday, it was Brussels’ turn.

There is evidence that the Islamic State used the cover of the flow of refugees to sneak fighters into Europe. At least three of the November Paris attackers are thought to have arrived there from Syria, and Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the alleged planner behind the attacks, allegedly claimed he had arrived with 90 “fighters” among the refugees.

Through the year, this cocktail of crises propped up far-right nationalist politics, leading to increased hatred and isolationism.

Experts warn that for many, all these events merge into a single crisis, overwhelming their efforts to calm people’s nerves.

There were 400 investigators looking into Abdeslam. If this attack was tied to his arrest how did they miss this cell?

Magnus Ranstorp, Swedish National Defense College

“It’s important to downplay, rather than exaggerate, the threat posed by terrorism to those of us living in Belgium, the UK and anywhere else,” said Lee Jarvis, author of nine books on the politics of terrorism, counter-terrorism and security and an editor of Critical Studies on Terrorism, a scholarly journal devoted to the topic. “Few states in Western Europe are strangers to unconventional violence of one form or another: there is, regrettably nothing qualitatively new in attacks of this nature.”

Magnus Ranstorp, an expert on international terrorism at the Swedish National Defense College, echoed that concern, saying that the terror attacks should not be linked to the refugee crisis. He insisted they are separate issues, and warned that cracking down on Muslim refugee populations can radicalize some.

Still, 34 died in Brussels in the two attacks, and there will be hard questions asked.

“There were 400 investigators looking into Abdeslam. If this attack was tied to his arrest how did they miss this cell?” he said. “How can an airport have so little security? The reality is that it’s pretty easy to reach these targets. It would not take much reconnaissance. But there is no way to put together these bombs in three days. The bombs were quite powerful. There was planning that went into these attacks.”

Europe’s anti-terror efforts are complicated further because the primary focus concern is not refugees, but legal Europeans who’ve gone to Syria to fight with the Islamic State and returned. In this, Belgium is hardly alone.

An estimated 38,000 foreign fighters have joined the Islamic State. Of those, an estimated 6,800 came from Western nations. Of those, Ranstorp said, about 6,000 come from Europe. And of those, 470 are from Belgium, a nation with only 11 million residents.

“Per capita, Belgium has the highest percentage of people going,” he noted. “A little less than half are thought to have returned.”

But they don’t have the highest overall numbers. An estimated 2,000 French have gone, and as many as 1,000 have returned. German anti-terror police believe 780 Germans have gone, and about a third have returned.

Brussels had been a terror target before, but not on this scale. As such the city joined the list of European cities that have been hit by large-scale terror attacks. It’s a list that includes Paris, London, Madrid, Istanbul and Oslo. The list of nations suffering through terror attacks can be expanded far beyond Europe, with recent attacks also in places including the United States, Tunisia, Cameroon, Nigeria, Chad, Egypt, Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan and Israel.

Only Monday, Jan Jambon, the Belgian interior minister, had told Belgian public radio that Abdeslam’s capture put the country on alert.

“We know that stopping one cell can push others into action,” he said in that interview. “We are aware of it in this case.”

And on Sunday, Belgian Foreign Minister Didier Reynders noted Abdeslam had warned he had been planning an attack in Brussels.

“He was ready to restart something in Brussels, and it may be the reality because we have found a lot of weapons, heavy weapons, in the first investigations and we have found a new network around him in Brussels,” he said.

But still there was little officials could do to stop the attacks, said Mark Singleton, director of the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism in The Hague.

“Even advanced warnings based on intel don’t offer guarantees,” he said in an email. “These attacks confirm how little resources are needed to wreak havoc.”

He added, “There’s only so much you’ll know. And even if you know a lot more, you’ll still not always be able to predict, interdict and incarcerate before it’s too late.”

President Obama addressed the terrorist attacks in Brussels Tuesday before a historic speech in Havana. He pledged to "defeat those who threaten the safety and security of people all around the world."

Matthew Schofield: @mattschodcnews