By Lili Bayer
Two explosions hit Brussels’ Zaventem Airport today, followed by another explosion at the Maelbeek metro station. The airport explosions took place at a check-in area around 8am local time, while the metro station was hit about an hour later. At least 34 people were killed. Early reports indicate that the airport blasts were the result of one suicide bombing and one bomb detonated from a distance. There are also reports that there was shouting in Arabic and gunshots were heard before the blasts. At least 14 people were killed in the airport attack. The Maelbeek station, where 20 people were killed, is in close proximity to European Union office buildings.
Today’s attacks differ from the Paris attacks on Nov. 13 in size, scope and level of organization. In Paris, the attacks involved the participation of several groups targeting a stadium, concert hall, restaurants and cafes and led to 130 deaths. The attacks in Brussels were coordinated, but may have involved as few as two or three individuals. Today’s attacks thus required much less equipment and advanced planning than the Paris attacks. It may be that the attacks are revenge for the arrest of Salah Abdeslam, a suspect in the Paris attacks. Or it could be operatives connected to Abdeslam – fearing that the authorities are closing in – attempting to carry out one last attack before their organization is dismantled.
Thus far, there have been no claims of responsibility for the attacks. There are reports in Russian and Kurdish press pointing a finger at the Islamic State, but no credible confirmation yet of the group’s involvement. The nature of the attacks, however, suggests the operation of an independent cell. We will continue watching closely for any claims of responsibility. Cells that are related to or work as a part of radical groups, including the Islamic State, are known to operate in Brussels.
The attacks come four days after the arrest of Abdeslam in the Brussels neighborhood of Molenbeek. The Nov. 13 attacks in Paris, which the Islamic State formally claimed responsibility for, were believed to have been planned largely in Brussels. Over the past few months, Belgian police conducted several raids in an effort to dislodge terror cells in Brussels. Molenbeek, an immigrant neighborhood in Brussels where unemployment stands at about 30 percent, is known as a jihadi hub. Not only were several suspects connected to the Paris bombings arrested in that neighborhood, but Molenbeek also reportedly boasts the highest concentration in Europe of militants going to fight in Syria and Iraq.
Attacks like those in Brussels today, especially on soft targets like large, unprotected public transportation centers, are likely the new normal for Europe. The Islamic State is largely focused on its war in Syria and Iraq, but militants have shown a willingness to further some strategic goals through terror attacks farther afield.
If today’s attack was indeed orchestrated by the Islamic State, it is in the group’s interest to strike visible Western targets because it benefits when the tide of popular opinion turns against migrants, and when Muslim minorities in Europe feel that the West does not accept them. Moreover, it is impossible for authorities to fully secure all soft targets. Even if some members of a cell are arrested or killed, groups tend to have middle managers who are responsible for coordinating multiple cells. Unless the middle management is eliminated, when some of the attackers die or get captured there are others who can be deployed and more attacks are likely. At the same time, local groups, lone wolves and militants returning from Syria and Iraq are also able to carry out attacks, albeit generally on a smaller scale. Lone wolves are particularly difficult to locate, even with strong security measures and intelligence capabilities.
The refugee crisis, combined with the impact of the Paris attacks, has contributed to the fragmentation of Europe’s Schengen free movement zone. The Schengen zone is still functioning, but many members have obtained opt-outs and selectively implement border controls. Today’s attacks led to the closure of the border between France and Belgium. They are not a game-changer for Europe, but they highlight that terror attacks, border controls and tight security have become part of Europe’s reality.