If you were allowing yourself to feel a little optimism that the world might be becoming a more peaceful place, with the ceasefire in Syria seeming to hold longer than most analysts ever expected, this week’s harrowing events in Belgium may have dimmed those hopeful glimmers.
The bombings in Brussels underlined once again that the jihadist violence that emanates from this war-torn region is as menacing as ever.
Three bombs went off in the Belgian capital on Tuesday. Two were set off by suicide bombers at the international airport and one explosion ripped through a subway train downtown, close to the heart of the European Union’s headquarters. At the time of writing more than 30 people are dead and more than 300 are injured.
The extremist group which calls itself Islamic State (IS) claims that its followers were behind the attacks. It is waging war in Iraq and Syria and holds significant amounts of territory. It has attracted some Muslims born in the West to join the fight there. It’s when they return home to the West, battle-hardened and with military know-how, that counter-terrorist agencies start to worry. And as events in Brussels this week and Paris in November have shown—with good reason.
The attacks were extremely simple but highly effective. The bombs were detonated in small confined areas, a perfect place for a mass-casualty event when leveraging a small improvised explosive device (IED). The bombs were also reinforced with pellets and nails to further inflict human injury.
Since declaring a Caliphate in June 2014 (a religious term which harks back to the era of the Prophet Mohammed and expresses a desire to unify the global Muslim community under a central leadership), IS has already conducted or inspired nearly 70 terrorist attacks in 20 countries other than Iraq and Syria. This is a harrowing trend that is unlikely to reverse in the short term. Belgium, with the largest number of foreign jihadi fighters in Iraq and Syria in absolute and relative terms, is therefore at considerable risk when these fighters return home.
The bombs blasts in Brussels are a sombre reminder of the difficulty of preventing attacks against transportation infrastructure such as airports and metro or bus stations. As security at military bases, embassies, and other government facilities increases there has been a trend among terrorists to attack softer targets. These locations are vulnerable as by their very nature they must remain open—and with so many such transport hubs it is not easy to detect and exclude those with hostile intentions.
Terrorism inspired by a narrow, extremist interpretation of Islam (particularly the Salafi-jihadi type) continues to pose a major security threat to Western European countries. IS and other such groups view these nations as attractive targets: in particular Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, and the United Kingdom. This may be because of their foreign policies, especially those involved in Muslim countries, or because specific events that have caused a strong visceral response among more hard-line elements of the Muslim community.
While it is still early to speculate about the motives behind these attacks, the bombings were likely in response to the capture of Salah Abdeslam in the Brussels suburb of Molenbeek, who’s being held on suspicion of involvement in the November 2015 Paris attacks. There have been several news reports that Abdeslam was plotting additional terrorism attacks in Europe and Belgian authorities were seeking two of his associates. It’s unclear whether those associates were involved in these attacks or if the bombings in Brussels were committed by other extremists. So further attacks in Belgium or regional European countries cannot be ruled out.