How the Brussels attacks could destabilize Europe

March 22, 2016
A soldier stands near broken windows after explosions at Zaventem airport near Brussels, Belgium, March 22, 2016.    REUTERS/Francois Lenoir - RTSBM7B

A soldier stands near broken windows after explosions at Zaventem airport near Brussels, Belgium, March 22, 2016. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir

In many ways, the attacks in Brussels today had a sick air of inevitability. Ever since the Paris attacks on November 13, the Belgian capital has been seen as the likely next target. What happened on Tuesday clearly shows the limits of Belgium’s much-criticized security and surveillance systems. But it is also a reminder of just how difficult stopping such incidents can be.

As always, lessons will be learned and systems tightened. The fact that an apparent suicide bomber was able to penetrate the crowded airport terminal points to one obvious loophole that could have been tightened — many airports in vulnerable parts of the world, such as India, have security screening points at the entrance to such buildings. They cause delays but provide a measure of security.

In reality, however, all that additional security does is shift the problem elsewhere. Nobody really expects such measures to be possible on crowded mass transit systems. And had the attack targeted several points on the Metro system rather than the Metro and the airport, the death toll might still have been similar — a bomb in a crowded place is still a bomb in a crowded place.

The simple truth is that Belgium has been expecting an attack for months. Troops have been deployed on the streets and other nations have dramatically ramped up support to the Belgian security services. Such attention was clearly starting to pay off — the arrest of one of the suspects from Paris last week is proof of that. But it simply wasn’t enough.

Better-coordinated security systems — particularly cross-border cooperation — are not just necessary, but vital. Even if they were to be improved very, very substantially, however, some attacks like this will get through.

What will happen now is relatively predictable, at least when it comes to the security response — we saw it in after Paris last year as well as in Madrid in 2004 after the attacks on its transport system killed 192 people. Security services will relatively quickly identify the attackers and begin to run down their wider networks. In Paris and Madrid, that led to police assaults several days later on the hideouts of the plotters — raids themselves that often end with yet another suicide explosion.

Such militant actions, however, are essentially political. And the political consequences of what happened in Brussels today are only just beginning.

Countries react very differently to attacks like this. The Madrid attacks in 2004 toppled the government, ending Spanish involvement in the Iraq war. The July 7, 2005 attacks in London, meanwhile, had a negligible impact on the mainstream political system — although a very real effect, albeit limited, on community cohesion.

The attacks in Belgium, however, take place against a much wider backdrop — not just the Paris attacks but the wider European migrant crisis. Even if all of the plotters in this case turn out to be homegrown, the attacks will still be seen in the wider European context of a continent already struggling to adapt to hundreds of thousands of new arrivals.

The real risk now is that hardliners on both sides end up playing off each other to destabilize the situation further. Already, hardline anti-migrant parties like Alternative for Deutschland — fresh from dramatic gains in local German elections earlier this month — say the Brussels attacks demonstrate a clear and urgent need to halt new arrivals. Muslim populations in Europe, both established and new, will inevitably find themselves under more suspicion and scrutiny, not to mention facing potential retaliatory violence.

Getting to the core of what motivates those behind attacks like this one is notoriously difficult. For now, for example, we have no real idea whether these attacks were deliberately coordinated by Islamic State or a similar group, inspired by them or perhaps simply the work of an unconnected small group. But it is certainly possible that this kind of polarization is exactly what the perpetrators want.

Some countries in Europe are clearly more vulnerable than others — both to physical attacks and potentially destabilizing political fallout that could have much broader implications. An attack in Belgium — always one of Europe’s least politically functional countries with a record of operating for sometimes years at a time without a government — was perhaps sufficiently predictable that the local political consequences will be limited. Similarly, after Paris another attack in France might also have relatively little impact on its domestic politics beyond providing another minor boost to the right-wing National Front.

A major attack in Germany, however, could prove rather more politically damaging to Chancellor Angela Merkel, essentially now the linchpin of the European project. Germany has not seen a major militant attack since the 1980s, but is struggling to deal with the arrival of more than 1 million migrants in the space of a year. Whatever the reality of the situation, that crisis and any militant attack would become immediately conflated in the public mind.

Those implications may already be crossing the Atlantic. It took little time for Republican front-runner Donald Trump to use events in Brussels to once again push his suggestions for hugely ramped up restrictions on Muslim travel into the United States. Even without attacks in America, pollsters say incidents like Brussels in Europe almost certainly improve his chances of winning in November.

Like America, Britain is relatively protected from attacks like Brussels because the English Channel gives it a much more policeable border, particularly when it comes to flow of weapons. The political fallout there would also be real, however, perhaps modestly boosting the chances of a Brexit vote in June’s EU referendum.

Handling crises like the Middle East and the now indissolubly intertwined political woes of Europe was already hard enough. The point of attacks like Brussels, I fear, is to make that even harder.

 

Follow Peter Apps on Twitter.

15 comments

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The problem lie with Saudi Arabia, and that disgusting ideology of theirs, wahhabism………and by extension Sunnism.

When your government rolls out the red carpet to the Saudi terrorist state, then you get what you deserve!

Posted by No_apartheid | Report as abusive

Greece may well offer the key to European defense. It is the point of entry for migrants among whom terrorists may invade. It has a low population density, and has territory to absorb the masses. Greece has an aging workforce, and so can benefit from the influx.
Greece most of all needs capital and jobs. The Eurozone can provide the hard currency. Pay the Greek government to accept the refugees. The government can then help her people to absorb the influx, creating jobs. Greece also has a massive gas field offshore. Among the refugees are people with the expertise to develop the gas. Greece lacks gas infrastructure. The refugees can help extend piping to Greek homes. The government can make loans available to her people to make the gas a motor fuel, providing savings. Then Greece can replace the VAT tax with a quarter euro tax on diesel to pay sovereign debt.
The winners are: The Greek people, who can then have an alternative to the hated VAT tax, and inexpensive fuel; The Greek government, who can have a sustainable source of revenue for debt service; the Eurozone, who has a place to keep the refugees while they are being vetted, and also an increasing assurance that Greece will become solvent; and the refugees, who fled war, not unemployment. They want to work. If in Greece, fine. If later, in western Europe, fine. They can be safe and busy and happy in Greece.

Posted by pgray | Report as abusive

Read section nine of the book and you will find the root to the problem. What causes the problem is not the hardliner at this point, we need to stand up and defend ourselves and not hide behind words like multi culture or free speech. We need to defend our tradition and history and who we are. We can not let our children inherit an insecure Europe. Learn from the history, this has been going on for the last 1400 years.

Posted by MayBeMe007 | Report as abusive

Maybe after these terrorist attacks the neighboring countries should build fences to lock in potential terrorists as they done with Greece.
It’s also recommended to establish other country as base for EU institutions as the security of Belgium reminds me a Swiss cheese.
The Belgian security and secret services displayed an impotence to handle the radicalization of their own citizens and furthermore they had accuse,no long time ago,the Greek authorities for security issues and lack of spotting possible threats within migrants and refugees from Syria by back holding crucial information.
The European countries seems to ignore the fact that when Syrian conflict started few years ago,the first thing opponents ( that includes MIT turkish secret services) to Assad’s regime and ISIS slayers did,was entering to abandoned Syrian State offices and stealing legal empty documents as passports and ID’s to what end we all now know.
This of all surprises me more : the lack of acknowledge how Iraqis,Iranians,Pakistanis and others ended up with Syrian passports in Europe via Turkey and how Greek or other European authorities can make sure that these passports aren’t fake or issued by the former Syrian State.

Posted by spiroschris25 | Report as abusive

Every attack in Europe brings carpet bombing closer to Raqqa regardless of international laws prohibiting the targeting of civilians. If the religiously deranged leaders of ISIL want a decisive battle to usher in the apocalypse, why should we not grant their wishes? After all, whole swaths of true believers will be efficiently swept into the welcoming arms of Allah leaving us infidels alone to ponder our spiritual ineptitude in peace.

Posted by TheReckoning | Report as abusive

They might finally realize that they need to Schwarzkopf Syria/Iraq.

Posted by UgoneHearMe | Report as abusive

No society can afford anything other than a zero tolerance policy on random terrorist attacks. And concessions to perpetrators of such attacks cannot possibly help, because they amount to giving in to blackmail.

Any accommodation made to perpetrators of terrorist acts in an attempt to mollify them and make them less likely to strike is like paying protection money to organized crime families.

Agreeing not to control borders is, in the present circumstances, an act of political cowardice.

Posted by Bob9999 | Report as abusive

So to explain what No_apartheid is talking about:
Belgian weapon factory FN Herstal sells arms to Saudi Arabia. But the Saudis suppost the Sunni rebel uprising against the Shia in Syria and Iraq. So the Belgian arms end up in the hands of IS.
I hope the Wallonians now support the Flemish effort to stop the export of arms to Saudi Arabia.

Posted by Exwaan | Report as abusive

Typically desk jockeys have little real world experience and thus their insights, if you can call them that, are childish and lack specificity on actions. The west in general doesn’t have the stomach for a solution. The terrorists know that. So, lets stop pretending that “the end is near”. For those of us who do real works, we don’t have time for this psycho drama. Just elect some more lawyers and other dirtbags and they can pretend like they are our protectors.

Posted by brotherkenny4 | Report as abusive

Just a quick note on ISIS being in a state of panic as seen in the Brussels massacre. This is simply and purely nonsense! It is comments like this that mislead the citizenry and goad on the terrorists. Europe, my home, has been showing overwhelming weakness and timidity in dealing with Islamic violence and presence. The leaders have thought that Islam was a pure and simple religion-yet their history showed and shows differently. Yet still the leaders slug on ‘blindly’ in harbouring Muslims. Not that all Muslims are bad. That’s not the point. But because Islam has a very, very, long track record in violence of all sorts over religion, these leaders should have taken time to study the chief tenets of their religion to know whether they would assimilate easily as do others. Failure to do this for oily reasons, among others, the leaders have filled Europe with violence that will take resolution, strength of will, and wisdom to get rid of this violence. If the leaders cannot see and accept this, then the people will take matters into their own hands; and that will bring more confusion and violence. I pray to the God Europe has rejected to give them mercy and forgiveness and wisdom for the future.

Posted by ronhende | Report as abusive

What will happen now is ENTIRELY predicatable. Vast new security restrictions will impinge on your freedom, and privacy while absolutely nothing will be done to rectify the true source of the cancer, namely the islamic invasion of Europe.

This invasion was noted by scores of dissenting readers, yet Reuters and every other media outlet ignored the danger, instead calling for complete acceptance of all migrants from muslim countries.

Posted by GetReel | Report as abusive

These countries need to wake up and start concentrating on the mosques and who is preaching hate. These young men are being encouraged by their cleric, and this needs to be stopped at the source. The Muslim community needs to step up and take responsibility for the actions of their young people. The police should find the cleric they attend and speak with him for addional information on others out there.

Posted by cheeze | Report as abusive

The right wingers killed and chased away all the jews in Europe. Should not have done that. Jews know how to deal with radical Muslims.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

Belgians security forces are willing to use force against their own people who are protesting the invasion of their country.

Posted by GetReel | Report as abusive

It was just revealed that the Belgian police knew where the missing attacker of Paris and planner of the Belgian attack lived, but “forgot” to pass this information on to the prosecutor in Antwerp, who would have alerted the federal police from there. I am speechless.

Posted by papababoo | Report as abusive