NAT SEC

Could Authorities Have Stopped The Brussels Attacks?

Major arrests, possible intelligence gains, and security that might have been increased, are all among questions in the wake of the deadly attacks in Brussels

NAT SEC
AFP/Getty Images
Mar 22, 2016 at 3:35 PM ET

It’s too soon to tell whether the attacks in Brussels on Tuesday were a direct consequence of the raid last week that netted one of the ISIS militants behind November’s deadly campaign in Paris—but the timing of the bloodshed is raising questions about the attackers’ motivation, and why Belgian authorities weren’t able to stop it.

There are myriad theories about the timing of the explosions in a train station and the departure hall of the Brussels airport that killed more than 30 people and wounded dozens more: Was it retaliation for last Thursday’s arrest of Salah Abdeslam, a suspect in the Paris bombings? Was it driven by a sense that authorities were closing in, so the bombers shifted their plans to carry out the attack before they too were found? Or just coincidence?

Vocativ asked several experts whether there was any way Belgian authorities could have acted to pre-empt the bloodshed.

Are the attacks a result of Abdeslam’s arrest?

“It’s too early to tell at this time if there is any connection,” said Ryan Greer, a security consultant and Fellow with the Truman National Security Project. “Though there are many reasons to speculate, not only due to the timing of the attack, but the sophistication with which it was carried out.” More disturbing, he says, is the larger question, of whether it was retribution, or “whether it is another attack as part of a larger trend of the ‘new normal’.”

Erik Cleven, a professor at Saint Anselm College and an expert on European terrorism, says “it is not impossible that the attack is a response to setbacks experienced by ISIS recently.” In the past month, the U.S.-led coalition against the terror group has marked significant victories, including the capture of its leading chemical weapons expert, and the death of a Chechen militant who’d been at the core of propaganda films urging Chechens and other militants to join the fighting ranks of the Islamic State.

Why didn’t Belgian authorities have the intelligence to anticipate an attack, given two attackers were still at large?

Cleven says: “European authorities don’t have the same intelligence coordination, nor the resources, that American counterterrorism efforts have.” At the same time, he says, an attack was thwarted in the Belgian suburb of Molenbeek last week, when Abdeslam was apprehended. “The reality of counterterrorism though is that it is nearly impossible to stop every attack, even if you are doing a good job.”

Along with the fact that there are fewer law enforcement officials in Europe necessary to properly investigate foreign fighters once they return from Syria or elsewhere, being able to collect intelligence from a war zone like Syria is particularly difficult, say experts. “With the high number of Belgians fighting in Syria who may return to home or inspire others, it is particularly difficult to follow all of them,” said Ryan Greer.

Did authorities do enough to ramp up security in the aftermath of last week’s arrests?

Some national security observers suggested Belgian officials could have ‘put the squeeze on Abdeslam’ to get information out of him, particularly as officials said he was meant to have been part of Tuesday’s attack. Even so, his celebrity lawyer told the media he was “collaborating” with the police.

Others say that there is always a need to augment security at major transit points and that there is always a threat, not just following an arrest. Still, Belgium gets a “fail” because its poor screening procedures hamper security not only for itself, but for the rest of Europe too. At the same time, says Ryan Greer, “we are in an era of “anywhere, anyhow” terrorism attacks, and we cannot pretend that there is a policy silver bullet that will prevent all attacks.”