PARIS – The carnage unleashed in Brussels on Tuesday shows that the Islamic State group is still capable of staging mass-casualty attacks in Belgium and Europe 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 Salah Abdeslam, suspected of being the last surviving member of the jihadi team that struck Paris in November.
He noted that the IS group that 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, also claimed by IS, 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,’ ” an official said on condition of anonymity.
The Brussels bombings came at a time when IS is under pressure and losing territory in its strongholds in Iraq and Syria.
“The more IS loses territory in Syria, the more they will export attacks,” said the official.
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 Centre 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 Defense Research Establishment.
But the French counterterrorism 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,” he said.
These opposing viewpoints may not be entirely contradictory.
The new reality of jihadism in Europe is of entrenched 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.”
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.”
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 Verviers cell, 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.