TSG IntelBrief: The Growing Terror Threat in the Year Since Brussels
March 22, 2017
Bottom Line Up Front:
• March 22 marks the one-year anniversary of the worst terror attack in Belgium’s history, in which 32 people were killed and hundreds more were wounded.
• The investigation into the attack revealed how extensive the cell responsible for the Paris and Brussels attacks was, and gave a glimpse of the threat posed by criminal-terror networks in the West.
• So long as numerous persistent global conflicts continue to provide self-sustaining sanctuaries for terror groups, the international community will have significant difficulty addressing the evolving threats radiating from these war zones.
• New aviation security restrictions announced March 21 by the U.S. and UK demonstrate the difficulties of containing terror groups that continue to use the world’s battlefields to refine bomb-making techniques to use against enemies near and far.
Today marks the one-year anniversary of the March 22, 2016 terror attacks in Brussels, Belgium, in which bombings at the Brussels airport and Maalbeek metro station killed 32 people and wounded hundreds more. The Brussels attacks came as Europe was still reeling from the November 2015 attacks in Paris that killed 130 people and wounded more than 300. Both attacks were linked to the same terror cell operating in Europe, which was directly linked to the so-called Islamic State. While the cell had seeds in North Africa, France and Belgium, it was the emergence of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria—where a number of the cell’s members had previously traveled to receive training—that catalyzed the deadly effectiveness of the terror network inside Europe.
As with the Paris attacks, the Brussels attacks demonstrated significant gaps in the capabilities of European security and intelligence services to effectively detect, monitor, and disrupt terror networks across the EU. Indeed, the Brussels attacks represented an even greater failure than Paris on the part of EU intelligence services given the elevated threat level, close connections between the cell members, and the small, tightly-knit communities to which they belonged. Though the EU has made strides in closing these security gaps, effectively disrupting smaller terror cells operating in Europe remains a weakness in EU counterterrorism strategies and operations.
In the year since the Brussels attacks, the threat level in the EU has only risen. The attacks spurred security services throughout Europe—but particularly in France and Belgium—to operate at a very high tempo; the number of raids and arrests spiked in the aftermath of each attack and have continued at an increased pace. Yet, given how many foreign fighters from the EU have traveled to Iraq and Syria—as well as a publicly unknown amount who have returned—the challenge facing European security and intelligence services is enormous. Even those who have not returned can still inspire and instruct family members and friends living in the EU. Though no attack in Europe since Brussels has shown signs of the same degree of coordination, further investigation into attacks initially believed to be committed by lone actors—such as the deadly attack in Nice in July 2016—have indicated some level of knowledge or involvement by other parties. While prior communication or coordination between cell members does not mean an attack was preventable—as such information is often only obvious in hindsight—it does show how peer-to-peer interaction and criminal connections play a significant role in terrorist operations.
For the international community, there is a high cost to persistent terror sanctuaries and wars that serve as live-fire training grounds. The Iraq war from 2003 to 2011 brought incredible and destructive advancements in improvised explosive devices (IEDs)—advances that made their way to the war zones of Afghanistan and elsewhere. Similar advances have been occurring in Syria and Yemen. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has long been viewed as al-Qaeda’s most dangerous affiliate, given its demonstrated bomb-making creativity and persistent interest in targeting civilian aviation. The ongoing chaos and power vacuum in Yemen has been an enormous boon for AQAP.
The surprise announcements on March 21 by U.S. and UK aviation authorities banning carry-on electronics larger than cellphones from ten airports in eight countries is believed to be in response to fears that AQAP and the Islamic State have made further leaps in bomb-making techniques intended to target airliners. Given how long both Yemen and Syria have been terror sanctuaries—and the high likelihood they will remain so for the foreseeable future—security agencies will be hard pressed to maintain current defenses while detecting and adapting to the evolving threats radiating from these conflict zones.
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