With at least 13 dead at the site of the airport bombing in Brussels on the morning of March 22; and an unknown number of dead and injured at what is being assumed to be a linked incident on the Metro (underground), it is clear that the terrorists have scored another major coup in Europe. There is already no shortage of analysis, with much of it pointing to deficits in Belgian intelligence-gathering and sharing since the Charlie Hebdo attacks in France in January 2015. The capture in Brussels last Friday of Salah Abdesalam, a fugitive from the Paris attacks in November 2015, is being projected as the possible trigger for the latest attacks, and at least one Belgian source is saying that the network of which he is thought to have been a member is both bigger and wider than the Belgian authorities had expected. At the time of writing, there has been no claim for responsibility for the attacks, but the Islamic State or one of its affiliates/proxies is a distinct possibility.
The attack once again highlights chronic deficits in Europe in terms of how terrorism is managed. The arrest of Abdesalam in a neighbourhood where he had lived openly for several months is a case in point. He had a support network in the close-knit and radical community of Molembeek, which has in the past been the focus of intelligence-led operations by Belgian security forces. His arrest came from a tip-off, probably by a pizza delivery driver, rather than conventional intelligence work. There was no such tip-off on Tuesday morning, and the social media were quickly awash with images of the dead and wounded, most of them too graphic to publish. Whoever carried out the attack picked their target well. Zaventem airport is notably lax regarding its own security, there being little before the check-in desks are reached in the departure area, and none at all on the perimeter beyond boundary fencing. There are hundreds if not thousands of similar targets across the European Union. This latest attack is bound to create more questions regarding the effectiveness of European intelligence agencies, and rightly so.
Published in The Express Tribune, March 23rd, 2016.
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