March 23, 2016

TSG IntelBrief: Terror Strikes Brussels

• Brussels was hit by two terrorist attacks on March 22, killing at least 30 and wounding over 230

• The Islamic State claimed responsibility for the multiple explosions targeting the metro and airport, coming on the heels of the March 18 capture of fugitive Salah Abdelslam 

• That the Islamic State, among other extremist groups, has cells in Belgium is without dispute, though their number and command and control structure remains unclear

• The arrest of Abdelslam and the Brussels attacks will usher in a near-term period of markedly heightened activity by both terrorists and counter-terrorism agencies across Europe.


On March 22, the other shoe finally dropped in Brussels. Two, or perhaps three, bombers attacked a ticket counter at Brussels’ Zaventem Airport, killing at least 10 people. Shortly after,a bomber detonated his suicide vest on a metro train pulling out of the Maelbeek station, killing at least another 20. The so-called Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attacks, in yet another instance of the group successfully conducting a complex mass casualty attack—even as local, national, and EU-wide security and intelligence services have been operating at their highest level. These attacks were long feared and investigated, yet were still successful. This is less a reflection on Belgian and other security services than an acknowledgment that the continent has entered a higher stage of baseline terror threats. Changes will be necessary to the approaches that have thus far proven insufficient for the scale of the problem radiating out from Syria and into the EU.

The attacks come four days after the arrest of Salah Abdelslam, the only known living member of the terror team that carried out the November 2015 attacks in Paris that killed 130. There is speculation, but no confirmation, that the March 22 attack was carried out by members of the same cell as the Paris attacks; if this is true, this single cell has carried out the deadliest terrorist attacks in both France and Belgium since World War Two.

If it is the same cell, several troubling questions arise: chiefly, how the cell did not functionally die after the Paris attacks and the arrest of Abdelslam, and how large and capable it remains. Belgium has experienced the highest per capita outflow of foreign fighters to Syria and Iraq of any Western European country. The sheer number of potential and actual threats, and the massive effort required to locate and disrupt these threats, is stressing the Belgian security forces who have been operating at their highest tempo since November. The question of command and control remains unanswered, but is less important than the reality that there are capable cells already in place in Belgium, and likely in other EU nations. Once a terror cell gets to a certain stage of preparation, it needs neither much guidance nor communication.

Putting aside the as-of-yet unanswered questions as to the true breadth of Islamic State terror cells in Europe, the recent attacks demonstrate again how much damage and chaos one relatively small group of trained and motivated people can inflict on a city well-equipped to counter the threat. In particular, tight-knit cells composed of people with deep ties that precede terrorism are proving the most deadly. These cells operate as socio-criminal units; as difficult as it is for police to contain known gang activity, it is even more so with terrorist groups, which retreat further below the radar the closer they are to executing a plot.

The March 22 attacks were sudden in their execution, but a long time coming in their build-up. The combination of persistent pockets of disenfranchised or maladjusted youth, the allure of the Islamic State's message to those pulling away from society, and the fighting in Syria, Iraq, and now Libya and elsewhere, has produced an inevitable sinking feeling surrounding such attacks. The resilience of a society is tested by fears of inevitable terror—fears that must be addressed by immediate action and thoughtful leadership. A sustained increase in counterterrorism raids is needed to address the immediate and near-term threat; a much broader, yet local, effort is needed to address the long-term issues from which these threats metastasize. 


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