Belgium massacres bare new reality of well-coordinated terror cells despite security crackdowns


Authorities in Europe and across the world tightened security at airports, railway stations, government buildings and other key sites after deadly attacks Tuesday on the Brussels airport and its subway system.

With Brussels on lockdown and the French prime minister saying that Europe is “at war,” European leaders held emergency security meetings and deployed more police, explosives experts, sniffer dogs and plainclothes officers, with some warning against travel to Belgium.

The nervousness was felt far and wide. In New York City, authorities deployed additional counterterrorism units to crowded areas and transit locations.

After a string of extremist attacks targeting the heart of Europe over the past year, some analysts say Europe will finally have to implement a much tougher level of security not only at airports, but also at “soft targets” like shopping malls — the kind that Israelis have been living with for years.

“The threat we are facing in Europe is about the same as what Israel faces,” said Olivier Guitta, the managing director of GlobalStrat, an international security consultancy. “We have entered an era in which we are going to have to change our way of life and take security very seriously.”

Strong criticism of Belgian security came on Tuesday from Pini Schiff, a former security director at Israel’s Ben-Gurion Airport, which is considered among the most secure in the world. After Palestinian attacks on Israeli planes and travelers in the 1970s, Israeli officials put in place several layers of security at that airport in Tel Aviv, meaning an attacker who escapes notice at one level of security would likely be captured by another.

Schiff said the attacks at the Brussels airport mark “a colossal failure” of Belgian security and that “the chances are very low” such a bombing could have happened in Israel.

There are some, however, who fear that little more can realistically be done.

“The public needs to understand that if we are to continue enjoy living in a free society we have to respond in a proportional way,” said Simon Bennett, director of the Civil Safety and Security Unit at the University of Leicester, England. “In my opinion, airport security is as tight as we can reasonably make it in a free society.”

Philip Baum, author of “Violence in the Skies: A History of Aircraft Hijacking and Bombing,” said “putting people through more hoops,” isn’t the answer to the ever-evolving threat. He said security personnel need to start using behavioral analysis to focus on negative intent. He also said they need better training, more flexibility and should start using more animals.

“It’s all about making security less predictable,” Baum said.

In Moscow, Russian Transport Minister Maxim Sokolov told Russian news agencies that authorities will “re-evaluate security” at Russian airports, although its measures are already among some of the toughest across Europe. There have been mandatory checks at the entrances to airports since a 2011 suicide bombing at Moscow’s Domodedovo airport that killed 37.

Security was high at all Paris airports and at Gatwick and Heathrow in London, among many others.

At Rome’s Fiumicino Airport, sniffer dogs were deployed in the check-in areas, while at Milan’s Malpensa airport police in carts were patrolling the areas before security checks.

In Germany, the state rail system, Deutsche Bahn, halted its high-speed rail service from Germany to Brussels, stopping them at the border city of Aachen.

Meanwhile, the international high-speed train operator Thalys suspended all of its train traffic Thursday and urged travelers to postpone trips to Belgium. Last year, an attack on a Thalys between Brussels and Paris was foiled by three Americans and a Briton traveling on the train.

Egypt also said it was increasing security, with top security officials asked to personally handle security checks inside airports and in outside areas like hotels and car parks.

Egypt has been working to improve its security after a Russian jet was brought down last October by extremists after taking off from Sharm el-Sheikh International Airport, killing all 224 people on board. Moscow said it was brought down by an explosive device, and a local branch of the extremist Islamic State group has claimed responsibility for planting it.

In Greece, police added additional security at airports, metro stations and embassies with uniformed and plain-clothed officers. But government spokeswoman Olga Gerovasili said there were no additional security measures being taken for refugees and migrants following the Brussels attacks.

“We are not making any linkage between those two issues. That would be a defeat for Europe,” she said.

The carnage unleashed in Brussels on Tuesday shows that jihadi networks in Belgium and across Europe are still capable of staging mass-casualty attacks despite an intensifying security crackdown, experts say.

A senior French counterterrorism official said the attacks were unlikely to be a direct response to the arrest in Brussels just four days ago of Saleh Abdeslam, suspected of being the last surviving member of the jihadist team that struck Paris in November.

He noted that the Islamic State group, which claimed the Paris massacres, never recognized Abdeslam’s involvement — possibly because he abandoned plans to blow himself up at the last minute.

Instead, the official said Tuesday’s bombings were more likely a response to previous police raids in Belgium, such as an operation in the town of Verviers in January 2015 when two jihadis were killed and another arrested.

“They want to show: ‘You have arrested some of us, but we are still here. You cannot stop us’,” the official told AFP on condition of anonymity.

The Brussels bombings — which have reportedly also been claimed by Islamic State — came at a time when the brutal jihadi group is under pressure and losing territory in its strongholds in Iraq and Syria.

Fresh violence in the West helps it attract foreign fighters and project strength, analysts say.

There is disagreement over whether the jihadis could have organized the assaults on the Brussels airport and metro quickly enough to be a response to Abdeslam’s arrest on Friday.

“These attacks normally take a fair bit of preparation, in terms of reconnaissance, explosives preparations, coordination,” said Matthew Henman, head of the IHS Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Center in London.

“It is perhaps more likely that this series of attacks was already being planned, was in its advanced stages, and that its conduct was brought forward in response to the Abdeslam arrest,” he said.

Belgian Foreign Minister Didier Reynders said Sunday that Abdeslam appeared to have been planning an attack on Brussels before his arrest.

Abdeslam told investigators “he was ready to restart something in Brussels … we have found a lot of weapons, heavy weapons, in the first investigations and we have found a new network around him in Brussels,” Reynders said.

“No one can mount an attack like this in 48 hours,” added Thomas Hegghammer, a terrorism expert with the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment.

But the French counter-terrorism official said Tuesday’s operation would “not necessarily require weeks of preparation”.

“When you’ve got explosives, Kalashnikovs, guys ready to go, it can be mounted very quickly: ‘You go hit the airport, and we’ll go hit the metro.’ In a few minutes, it’s decided,” he said.

These opposing viewpoints may not be entirely contradictory.

The new reality of jihadism in Europe is of embedded networks that are fairly resistant to police disruption and prepared to act at a moment’s notice — even in a country like Belgium that is on high alert.

“In the past, Islamist groups carried out one big attack and then they were rolled up and not able to carry out anything else,” Henman said.

“But here we are working on the credible but unconfirmed assumption that this is the same network that carried out the Paris attacks.

“That would mean a deeply embedded network that was not only able to survive the counterterrorism operations that followed the Paris attacks, but also to launch another large-scale operation in a major European city,” he said.

“That capability is relatively new from a militant Islamist perspective.”

Hegghammer said the ability of a jihadi network to survive a major international police crackdown was “unprecedented.”

“(The authorities) identified the network and weren’t able to uproot it. This is a watershed moment. It shows that the counterterrorism capabilities in Brussels and maybe Europe as a whole are too weak compared to the threat,” Hegghammer said.

Investigators do not yet know whether Tuesday’s attackers had direct links to the cell that carried out the Paris attacks or whether they kept themselves separate to avoid detection.

But links between cells have been found in the past. The cell in Verviers, for example, was in phone contact with Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the suspected ringleader of the Paris attacks who was killed in a police raid a few days later.

The woman who informed police about Abaaoud’s whereabouts has told reporters he boasted of traveling to Europe with 90 other Islamic State operatives.

“We have to accept that things will get worse before they get better,” the counterterrorism official said.

“We will catch certain teams, there have never been so many arrests. But we are overwhelmed by the number, and we won’t get all of them.”