‘The heart of Europe is bleeding’ – this is a comment made during the extensive coverage that has followed the attacks in Brussels on Tuesday last. By Wednesday morning, the three bomb explosions, one presumed to be by a suicide bomber, that started at Zamentem airport in Brussels to be followed by the third one in the metro, had left at least 34 people dead and 200 injured. The death and injury toll was expected to rise as there were presumed to be more casualties buried under the debris of the false roof that collapsed in the departure hall of the airport.
The attacks, for which ISIS has claimed responsibility according to a report in the Independent Online News UK, came in the wake of the arrest of Salah Abdesalam, considered to be the mastermind of the attacks at the Bataclan in Paris on 13 November 2015. He was found in an apartment in the Mollenbeck locality of Brussels, and the same report says that he had ‘reportedly told investigators he was part of a cell planning further atrocities in Brussels after a large cache of weapons was found’.
In line with this revelation, one of the explanations being given about the timing of the attacks is that the cell(s) involved may have had apprehensions about being found out once Abdesalam started ‘cooperating’ with the investigators, and so preferred to launch their attacks pre-emptively. In any case, the terrorism experts noted further, these attacks had most likely been planned earlier, given the logistics required, rather than being linked per se to the arrest of the Paris protagonist, as some others were surmising.
The reason for the description of the ‘heart’ of Europe bleeding is the site of the third explosion, which took place in a metro station, Malbeek, very near the seat of the European Union in Brussels. Besides the fact that many personnel working there use that station, the EU headquarters are indeed considered to be its real nerve centre, where its bureaucracy is to be found and all the important deliberations and decisions take place. And they impact not only Europe but the whole world in many ways eventually.
On the other hand, inevitably immediately following the attacks there was a complete lockdown in Brussels, starting with the airport and the metro, extending to schools, shopping malls and all other civilian facilities, so practically life came to a standstill except for the flurry of activity in connection with the explosions, such as evacuation of casualties and securing passengers and personnel, etc. EU requested its staff to stay put, and people in Brussels were advised to stay indoors. Simultaneously, all other EU countries raised their levels of alert at the airports, ports and similar sensitive places, and people were similarly advised to be extra cautious in their movements while carrying out their daily activities. Even in the US, security measures were beefed up.
It can be seen therefore that while Brussels was in lockdown, other EU countries too were in partial shutdown mode at least, with fear stalking Europe. Commented Dr Natasha Underhill, an expert on terrorism in the Middle East at Nottingham Trent University, ‘there was “little doubt” that the latest atrocity in Europe would not be the last… The likelihood of further attacks in Europe is now in very little doubt,’ adding that ‘the promotion of fear is one of the strongest assets that Islamic State possesses and it is sadly doing an excellent job in spreading this message across Europe’.
In fact, again as terrorism experts have pointed out, it is clear that only al Qaeda and ISIS have the wherewithal to carry out such coordinated attacks. Additionally, the fact that they have adherents who have been trained in the zones of war in the Middle East and are now spread across countries in Europe and in North America with capacity to carry out lone-wolf or joint attacks targeting heavily frequented areas, is considered to be tantamount to a third world war situation that is emerging.
This, the ‘war on terrorism’, is likely to be protracted given the ramifications and spread of ISIS and al Qaeda adherents, who are active in North and West Africa too besides Europe and the Middle East. Moreover, one must not forget Turkey where there have been several attacks in recent weeks with loss of life and again disruption of civilian life in popular areas.
Another point that was underlined about these attacks, when the question of why have the authorities not been able to prevent further ones arose, is the lack of timely sharing of intelligence among the investigating agencies, as well as among EU member states, and the police for legal and ‘historical, legal and cultural’ reasons. This was also a very important lacuna that surfaced post 9/11 in the USA, when it was found that information sharing between the FBI and other organisms, including the police, was a major factor that needed to be addressed.
This is what led to the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, which may explain that there has been no attack of the magnitude of the 9/11 one on US soil again since then. In India too the problem of sharing of intelligence among different agencies became an issue after the 26/11 attack in Mumbai, and to date the National Counter Terrorism Agency that was conceptualised by then Minister P. Chidambaram has not materialized.
It would seem that this crucial issue of sharing of information needs to be addressed very urgently by all governments, for it also comes up elsewhere. For example, the EU chief of Interpol complained about it in a BBC interview with Steven Sackur some time ago. Given how vital such intelligence is, if countries want to tackle terrorism really head-on, it is more than evident that unless they move – and move with great urgency – to plug the gaps that exist in a concerted manner, that third world war on terrorism may turn out to be a losing battle. By the same token, perhaps the dilly-dallying between Belgium and France about the extradition of Abdesalam will now cease!
Such jarring dysfunctions (reluctance to share intelligence or raising spurious legal impediments for country ‘ego’ reasons) are clearly inimical to winning the war on terrorism. This is something that the world cannot afford if we want to preserve a way of life premised on the open society, democracy, the rule of law, and human rights deriving from universal values and adherence to norms and standards emanating therefrom.
What a sad irony and paradox indeed, that the same EU which is bending over backwards to organize safe shelter for migrants fleeing war, should be the victim of attack by terrorists coming from the migrants’ countries – though not all – and to whom several EU countries, Belgium included, have offered a welcoming home.
* Published in print edition on 25 March 2016