In the space of four days, two cities in Europe have been struck by suicide bombers – and in both attacks the hand of ISIL was detectable. The attacks in Istanbul last Saturday and Brussels yesterday morning are only the latest in what is now clearly a wave of ISIL-linked attacks. The horrific Paris attacks occurred just a few months ago, in November.
In the immediate aftermath of such an attack, it is essential to be cautious. Information is still coming out about what happened in the Belgian capital. But it does look as if the various challenges of the past few years have combined to bring about an incredibly difficult dilemma for the Middle East and Europe, one whose roots lie in Syria but the ramifications of which will be felt globally.
If initial reports turn out to be accurate, the beginnings of the Brussels attacks, like those in Paris, lie in the Belgian city’s deprived district of Molenbeek. But from there the link moves to Syria, where the ISIL stronghold of Raqqa provides an ungoverned space for would-be extremists to gather, train and organise. The mutation of religious instruction they receive convinces them they are doing the right thing. Those who slip back into Europe are unknown to intelligence agencies, or it takes the security services too long to find them.
The result is the tragedy we have seen too often in the Middle East and Europe, and now in the Belgian capital.
For sure there will be questions asked of the Belgian security services, as well as of the airports. “What can be done?” will be the first question most people ask. The answer is hard to hear, because there is a natural limit to what can be done. The answer in the long term lies in the end to the Syrian civil war, the end of the grudges and warped ideas that motivate these young men.
But even in the short term, protecting major infrastructure such as airports will not prove easy. Globally, since the September 11 attacks, the focus has been on preventing bombs getting on to aircraft. But the attacks in Brussels took place inside a terminal in an area usually open to any member of the public. Would it help to move the security checks closer to the airport’s entrance, as happens in some airports? Perhaps, but there would still be large numbers of people gathering there.
In the end, a balance has to be struck between freedom of movement and security. If airports are highly protected, the bombers will shift to train stations; if those are secure, they will look to bus stations, or to malls. There is always a balance to be struck – strike it too far in one direction and we will have allowed the terrorists to change our way of life.
Our hearts go out to the families of the victims in Brussels. We mourn for them, as we mourned for Istanbul’s victims last week and Paris’s victims before that. The global terror threat is one that puts us all at risk.
There are, unfortunately, few simple answers – just a sustained, cooperative, intelligence-led approach that has proven successful in the past and must be refined again for the future.