The bombings in Brussels shocked Belgium and Europe to the core. The senseless violence that left 300 injured and 35 dead in the attacks at the Maelbeek Train Station near the EU headquarters and Brussels’ airport struck at the heart of the Europe and the European Union.
Even as the hunt for the elusive white jacket bomber has ended with the arrest of Mohamed Abrini, any relief will be short lived. Europe is now back to square one in its fight against the Islamic State global terrorist campaign.
As was discovered when Belgian authorities arrested Europe’s most wanted fugitive and the only survivor of the Parisian attack cell, Saleh Abdelslam, the new wave of Islamic extremists are predominantly European nationals who know the ins and outs of the European Union, and have large familial networks that provide them support.
This has led many to agree with French President Francois Hollande who stated: “This is not over,” and that security forces are trying to uncover the wide, extensive” network of jihadists who are behind these attacks.
A game of cat and mouse
For now it is a game of hide and seek. Belgian Foreign Minister Didier Reynders has admitted previously that the Brussels authorities thought there were at least 30 terrorists remaining at large in the city. Finding these terrorists will be difficult because these groups have morphed into something more than religious extremists.
According to security experts, many of the terrorists operating in Europe have become integrated with organized crime groups or the Mafia. Intelligence experts like Yan St-Pierre, CEO and counterintelligence adviser for the Modern Security Consulting Group, have argued that the Islamic State have tapped into:
“Mafia-type organized crime, with highly sophisticated smuggling operations, for logistics support like transporting people, issuing fake identity papers or selling weapons.”
The Islamic Mafia
The development of such an entity is not surprising given the clan based nature of many Arab and North African societies. In Belgium, for example, Moroccan-Belgians often existed within a very tight knit expat community.
Brothers, cousins, and extended family relations are often very close, and will provide support to one another without asking questions due to clan based loyalty to their friends and family.
Infiltrating and monitoring these identity networks is extremely difficult due to their close nature. One only has to look at the Paris and Brussels attacks to note that many of the attackers in both incidents were family or friends, some from childhood (Mohamad Abrini for example was friends with Saleh Abdeslam and his brother Ibrahim who blew himself up in Paris) and both the el-Bakraoui brothers and Mohamad Abrini were known criminals and had spent time in jail, as had Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the leader of the Paris attacks.
Despite the challenges, this week police in Belgium have charged a further two men with terrorist offenses in connection with the deadly Brussels attacks.
Watch this euronews report for more on that:
Europe’s soft underbelly
While these gangster-style Islamic networks make infiltration difficult, both the Paris and Brussels attacks were a study of the miscommunication that hampers the European Union. The open nature of the European Union, and the freedom of movement provided by the Schengen Agreement means that it is a hard to coordinate security measures between countries and share relevant intelligence.
Security forces in the Netherlands, Sweden, France, and Belgium were clearly aware that there were terrorists operating within their borders, but due to miscommunication and protocol failures many warning signs were missed or discounted.
After the Brussels attacks it was revealed by the Turkish Prime Minister that Turkey had deported one of the suicide bombers Ibrahim el-Bakraoui after catching him on the Turkish-Syrian border in July 2015, but worse than that was the information that the FBI had informed the Dutch government that both el-Bakraoui brothers were wanted by the Belgium authorities in March in connection with the Paris attack and yet both remained free.
Border controls in Belgium were also lackluster during the weeks prior to the attack in Brussels with a recent report detailing the use of untrained border guards to identify those arrivals who were high risk against an EU-wide terror database, SIS, which contains alerts for the names of several thousand foreign fighters, as well as stolen and forged passports.
Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the Belgian architect of the Paris massacre, had boasted that he was able to go from Syria to Belgium as border guards failed to identify him, despite his face being in the media.
Perhaps this was sheer luck, but more likely it was an oversight caused by the economic cuts many European nations have made to their security budgets over the past few years. Many are now simply relying on sophisticated facial recognition software and high tech surveillance which does not utilize costly human investigators who can monitor suspects daily.
As a result, intelligence experts such as Claude Moniquet, a retired agent for France’s external intelligence service, DGSE, who now runs a private intelligence company in Brussels, fear that Europe will face further attacks.
“What we expect is a multi-city, multi-target attack at the same moment, and it will have terrible consequences.”
Racism and radicalization
Many are not surprised. For years racism against Muslim immigrants has been a problem in various European nations. In France it has lead to heated debates and riots over Islamic headdress. In Belgium, Moroccan-Belgians often face discrimination and marginalization due to their background.
Many believe this lack of opportunities and societal rejection is the reason behind many of Europe’s youth becoming radicalized. One young Belgium Moroccan told a CNN reporter that: “The Belgian state rejects children and young people; they say, ‘They are all foreigners, why should we give them a job?’
They fill us with hate, and they say we aren’t of any use, so when young people see what’s going on over there [in Syria], they think ‘Well OK, let’s go there and be useful.'”
For more on Belgium’s connection with Islamic extremism watch this this video by TestTube News:
Dr. Victoria Kelly-Clark received her doctorate in political science and international relations from the Australian National University. She has lived in Central Asia and specializes in Russia and its former Soviet territories. For more information, go to Central Asia and Beyond.