On this morning of March 22, 2016, the long tail of terrorism once again struck Europe. Less than a week after Belgian authorities arrested Salah Abdeslam, one of the Paris attackers, explosions have shaken multiple transportation hubs in Brussels, Belgium. At the time of this writing, two bombs have detonated at the Brussels airport and a separate bombing has occurred at the Maelbeek subway station. While the dust has yet to settle in Brussels, it appears more than two dozen have died from multiple blasts. The Brussels bombings, a major attack coming only months after Paris and days after the arrest of Abdeslam in the Molenbeek district of Brussels, confirms that Europe has a major terrorist problem in its midst.
Timing and Techniques: Is this the work of the Islamic State?
Few facts have emerged since the bombings. But the timing and techniques utilized in today’s attacks suggest that the same network that perpetrated the Paris attacks in November likely orchestrated this massacre. Last week, Belgian authorities arrested Abdeslam in the neighborhood where he grew up. He was the only surviving perpetrator of the Paris attacks and he eluded authorities for more than four months. Two other suspects allegedly escaped when Abdelslam was caught.
Logically, one might assume this attack occurred in response to the Abdelslam arrest. Abdelslam’s terrorist facilitation network, having watched the arrest of their comrade, likely assumed law enforcement would continue rapidly pursuing any additional leads produced by intelligence gained during last week’s arrest. The choice for those still at-large in the network is to either go-to-ground and elude authorities or immediately accelerate any potential plot or plots currently being prepared. The speed at which this attack occurred suggests that the network had likely been preparing for this attack in some manner for many weeks or months prior to Abdelslam’s arrest. The similarity of the attack to Paris, using suicide operations against soft targets, and the speed at which it was executed in relation to a Paris connected arrest suggest the Islamic State, either directly or through its network, is involved. The social media app Telegram is already littered with Islamic State propaganda stemming from the attack.
Capacity and Competency: Europe has a two-fold counterterrorism problem
The failure to detect and interdict the Paris attacks in November seemed to point to a problem of capacity. European countries, having stood by and watched for years as their angry boys were radicalized and recruited into the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, seemed to have far too many terrorism suspects and resulting leads to manage. The volume of potential terrorists to cover seemingly exceeded the capacity of European authorities. In November, I discussed the “Iceberg Theory” of terrorist plots, where for the eight to ten Paris attackers, “we should look for two, three, or possibly four dozen extremist facilitators and supporters between Syria and France.” Today I suspect we are seeing more of Europe’s terrorism iceberg.
Last week’s arrest of Abdelslam and today’s failure to detect and disrupt a major terrorist attack similar to that of Paris suggests a far more ominous counterterrorism problem in Europe — incompetence. Belgian authorities arrested Abdelslam in Molenbeek, an area swept repeatedly by counterterrorism authorities in recent months. The arrest of Abdelslam should have immediately triggered an intense buildup in law enforcement activity to disrupt a likely retaliatory attack. Additionally, today’s attacks at the airport and in the subway system used suicide missions armed with explosives. The use of explosives suggests that a significant terrorist facilitation network likely remains in Europe empowering attacks al Qaeda always dreamed of executing but for which they lacked the operational support capability.
Belgium, a smaller European country, appears to have both a capacity and competency problem with regards to counterterrorism. Other small European countries, such as Denmark and the Netherlands, have also been home to large concentrations of foreign fighters who have gone to Syria and Iraq. Do they have the same counterterrorism capacity and competency problems as Belgium?
Safe Harbor and Bleed Out: Last decade’s al Qaeda fears have come to fruition with the Islamic State
Ten years ago following the London subway bombings, analysts feared the potentially deadly consequences of disaffected European diaspora communities providing safe harbor to returning terrorist foreign fighters (Bleed Out) and inspired young boys. Al Qaeda never successfully mobilized these disaffected young boys to execute a string of attacks on Western targets. Today, the Islamic State’s current and former foreign fighters have come from these disaffected communities on a scale several fold larger than the numbers produced during al Qaeda’s heyday. In the coming months, the Belgian and European response to the wave of Islamic State networked and inspired attacks will likely influence the future of the Islamic State as it loses ground in Syria and Iraq. Will these attacks provoke a heavy backlash against already disaffected diaspora communities further empowering the Islamic State’s message? Will they further push European countries to resolve the Syrian conflict to stem refugee flows and apply increased pressure on the Islamic State? Will they finally bring about needed intelligence sharing and counterterrorism cooperation between European countries? The Paris attacks were treated as an investigation, one pursuing a network associated with a single plot. Brussels on top of Paris demonstrates that this as a Europe-wide issue requiring a unified and coordinated response.
As the smoke still rises over Brussels, counterterrorists around the world must again pick up their intensity. The Paris attacks triggered a wave of Islamic State affiliate and networked attacks on three continents, provoked competitive attacks from al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and inspired lone wolves and small cells in Philadelphia and San Bernardino. Brussels, like Paris before it, may likely create the same phenomena. Any plot(s) in either the Islamic State or al Qaeda’s network may very well be accelerated. Any inspired wannabe from afar may see today’s media attention as the final motivation to undertake violence. For the Islamic State success breeds success. Can the world’s counterterrorists stop this trend?
Clint Watts is a Robert A. Fox Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.