Brussels’ Big Terrorism Problem: Is This the Islamic State?

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.

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Philadelphia’s Message to the World

This blog is based on a talk to 3,000 high school students at the Ivy League Model UN Conference in Philadelphia, January 28, 2016.

Late last year, Philadelphia became the first US city to be granted World Heritage City status by UNESCO.  This is an opportunity for Philadelphians to pause and reflect on precisely what it is that constitutes Philadelphia’s contribution to world history, and what, if anything, Philadelphia can teach the world today.


Of course, we associate our nation’s founding documents – the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States – with Philadelphia, where they were drafted. But, still, what precise lessons emerge from these documents, and how well are we communicating those lessons to the world – or even to our own children?

I have heard it said that Philadelphia is the birthplace of modern democracy. But, as the economist Steven Hanke has pointed out, the word democracy appears nowhere in the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution.  And the bell we revere in Independence Square is not called the Democracy Bell.

If the truth be told, the Founding Fathers were skeptical of democracy, even fearful of it, for they associated it with the tyranny of the majority.  They therefore constructed a constitution designed, as UPenn historian Walter McDougall notes, “to thwart democracy.” They separated powers among the executive, judicial, and legislative branches of government, divided powers between federal and state governments, provided for each branch of government to check the others while limiting the powers of all. These are the means by which the founders sought to limit what majority rule could do.

Ultimately, Hanke explains, they gave us not democracy, but liberty.

The difference is important for the world at large, especially as we try to foster transitions to “democracy.”  That a country holds an election may make it democratic but it does not make it free if there are no protections for individual liberty and no structures in place to protect that liberty from a tyrant in the form of a person or in the form of “the people.”

In a conference we sponsored on “The Creation of a Liberal Society: Did It Happen in Philadelphia by Accident?,” the historian Alan Tully reminded us of the signal contribution of William Penn, whose statue stands atop City Hall in Philadelphia. In 1681, he was given a charter for a province that became the commonwealth that took his name – Pennsylvania. As a Quaker, a sect once persecuted in England for their religious beliefs and practices, Penn promulgated for that province — but ultimately for the country as a whole — freedom of conscience, freedom to follow the religion of your choice. After a century of havoc wrought in Europe by the Wars of Religion, Penn’s concept of freedom of conscience was a novel idea. We take it for granted but experiences in other parts of the world – and even sometimes here at home — suggest that it is not something that can ever be taken for granted.

Freedom of religion is our first freedom, not only philosophically but literally as well. The first of ten amendments to the Constitution that make up the Bill of Rights, whose passage was promised in order to secure ratification of the Constitution in the first place, reads:  “Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” Thus, freedom of religion is the very first right guaranteed in the very first amendment.  It is the cornerstone of liberty.

Does this speak to the modern world?  It most certainly does, as many pundits have already opined that the wars of religion in the Middle East today seem so reminiscent of the Wars of Religion of yesteryear. The maltreatment of religious minorities in the Middle East, sometimes bordering on genocide, is in desperate need of correction. It is noteworthy that on January 27 a meeting of 250 Muslim religious leaders in Marrakesh, Morocco issued the Marrakesh Declaration affirming that Islam prohibits the mistreatment of religious minorities in Muslim majority states.  From William Penn to Marrakesh, you can draw a straight line.

What can Philadelphia teach the world? That liberty is a higher value than democracy, and that freedom of conscience is the basis of all liberty.

Historians have noted that the history of the world through time and space is a history largely of war, oppression, and poverty, save for the last few hundred years when we have carved out a space for peace and peaceful resolution of conflict, for liberty, and for prosperity.  And at least some debt for this is owed to what happened in Philadelphia in the 1700s.  It remained for the generations that followed and for us today first to understand this legacy – and then to build on it to spread the blessings of liberty.

Alan Luxenberg is president of the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia.

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