Tuesday’s attacks in Brussels were the third major terror attack on European soil in just over a year. They were preceded by two attacks in Paris: the Charlie Hebdo and Hyper Cacher kosher supermarket attacks in January 2015; and the attacks at the Bataclan theater and elsewhere in the French capital last November.
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Despite continuous live broadcasts on television, shocked citizens on the streets and spontaneous gatherings of mourners in the city squares, the phenomenon was not as new as some believed. After the previous Western intervention in the Middle East – the second Gulf war in 2003 – radical Islamists attacked targets in Europe: Al-Qaida, which the Islamic State group later broke away from, blew up trains in huge terrorist attacks in Madrid and London over a decade ago.
Immediately after the Brussels attacks, the usual “We told you so” responses began in Israel. Israeli ministers – including some whom the television and radio stations have a hard time reaching when they want a response to the latest terror attack in Tel Aviv or Hebron, and those who have sat for six months in a government that is unable to find an answer to the wave of knife attacks – generously provided condescending advice to the Europeans. Even before they had buried their dead, the Belgians were on the receiving end of harsh criticism for their naveté in general and their chocolate eating in particular. If they were just a bit more like us the results would have been completely different, was the message.
In reality, every democratic country that suffers terror attacks conducts a process to find the balance between protecting the security of its citizens and defending the freedoms granted them. Every nation in its own way. Israel is closer to the fire and has been dealing with it for decades, so it’s already taken far-reaching steps to defend itself. But in Israel, too, such breaches were closed and defensive techniques developed only after the enemy first made use of them.
The wave of airplane hijackings in the late 1960s and early ’70s led to the development of an impressive security system for El Al and the Israel Airports Authority, something the Europeans will now have decide whether to adopt. The navy’s radar network learned to home in on terrorists’ boats only as a result of a number of bloody infiltrations by sea. The Shin Bet security service and Israel Defense Forces formulated methods to deal with suicide bombers a long time after buses began blowing up in the streets of Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Haifa. And Israel is still scrambling for a cure against the present plague of stabbings and vehicle-ramming attacks.
Europe can start implementing some of the means and methods Israel has used against the suicide bombings. But we must wait and see whether the European public and governments have reached the critical mass of losses and trauma that would justify a fundamental change in their lifestyles and security rules while compromising their freedoms, as happened in the United States after the 9/11 attacks in 2001.
The possible actions are familiar and well-known: Strengthening the coordination between intelligence agencies within the countries and between them; removing bureaucratic obstacles (it has been reported that in Belgium, collaboration is difficult between the rival Flemish and Walloon police units); increased basic intelligence coverage of groups that have a high potential for terror; harsher punishment by the courts; and establishing a strict and broader system of security on trains, and in particular at airports.
Such actions require a change in the way Europeans think, a deviation from accepted ideological principles and, of course, a major financial investment. Most of these things didn’t happen on the continent after the previous round of terror attacks in Paris. It is not certain they will happen now either, once the mourners disappear from the streets of the Belgian capital.
Speaking after the attacks in Belgium, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon stated that the West’s war on radical Islam is World War III. This terminology has taken root inside the Israeli defense establishment in recent months. Even senior officers in Military Intelligence and the previous head of the Mossad, Tamir Pardo, use the term. Nevertheless, it is hard to find historical justification for this right now. Terror attacks in the West are still relatively rare and take place against the backdrop of bloody war in the Arab world: Shi’ite against Sunni Muslims; extremist Sunni groups against the older Sunni regimes.
Falling on deaf ears
In his speech via satellite to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference in Washington on Tuesday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attempted to make a comparison between the recent attacks in Belgium, the Ivory Coast and Israel. The next evening, in case his message was not clear enough, Netanyahu called a special news conference in Israel during prime time, in which he repeated the same message. For now, it seems his words are falling on deaf ears.
Of course a common denominator exists between all these terror acts: horrifying violence, burning hatred and radical Islam. It is also likely that ISIS’s propaganda, disseminated through social media, is trickling down to some of the young Palestinian terrorists. It has been a long time since the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was the main factor for Islamic terrorism in the West, and it’s not relevant to the civil wars raging in the Middle East – something everyone understands except a few European foreign ministers. But the severe terrorism assailing Israel now cannot serve as a moral justification for the continued occupation, or as a basis for significant solidarity with Western nations.
The Palestinians are conducting murderous terrorism against Israel as part of a struggle for national liberation, which includes a growing and strengthening religious aspect. The goal does not justify the illegal methods they use. But it would be naive to expect Europeans “to now understand what we are going through,” simply because Brussels is currently experiencing what the residents of Israeli cities have felt for decades. Certainly Europe is not going to agree to support the continued construction in the settlements.
Open gate to the terminal
The security services in Belgium and neighboring countries are still busy following the tracks and clues the terrorists left behind. But the more information they uncover, the more the scope of their failure is revealed. As reported in Haaretz on Thursday, Belgian intelligence – along with other Western intelligence agencies – received a rather specific warning about an expected attack on the airport. It seems the intention of attacking the subway was also known.
The Belgians also knew the approximate schedule. Beginning with last week’s arrest of Salah Abdeslam – the terrorist who fled Paris after taking part in the attacks there last November – it was clear the bomb had started ticking: ISIS needed to act quickly before the security forces located the tracks of the group, based on information revealed by Abdeslam in his interrogation. (A report in Politico on Friday claimed the Belgian authorities had only questioned Abdeslam for one hour after his arrest and before Tuesday’s attack, because he was “very tired.”)
The basic instructions for a terrorist operation arrive at ISIS’ European network from the organization’s headquarters in Raqqa, northeastern Syria – the de facto capital of the Islamic caliphate declared by the group. It can be assumed that Western intelligence agencies know at least some of the communications channels between Syria and the West.
Still, as far as is known, no exceptional security measures were in place in Brussels. At the airport, for example, terrorists could enter the departure hall without any trouble and with suitcases packed with explosives. The security process only begins after reaching an airline’s check-in counter. In Israel, two outer rings of security exist: Guards man checkpoints at the vehicle entrances to the airport; and more guards stand at the entrances to the terminals after that.
Western reservations about such methods are not only related to the economic costs involved. Israeli security works based on identifying suspicious signs, some of which involve the ethnic profiling of passengers. In the West, this would be considered racial discrimination. As far as immigrants are concerned, and certainly Muslims, the European nations proceed with caution. They are carrying a historical burden on their backs – hundreds of years in which the First World abused the Third.
The three suicide bombers were known to intelligence services. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Wednesday that one of the terrorists, Ibrahim El Bakraoui, trained in ISIS camps in Syria and was later deported from Turkey to The Netherlands. He said the Turks also passed on warnings about him to Dutch and Belgian authorities – who did nothing about it. Ibrahim’s brother, Khalid El Bakraoui, was also wanted by Interpol but had evaded arrest. The third terrorist, Najim Laachraoui, who also underwent training in Syria, was stopped by police last September along with Abdeslam while traveling from Budapest to Brussels. Border police allowed them to proceed after they presented fake documentation and said they were tourists on their way to Vienna. Neither man was detained, allowing them to contribute to the Paris attacks two months later.
These are not exceptional mistakes. More than 5,000 European terrorists, including some 670 Belgian citizens, have taken part in the war in Syria, says Matthew Levitt, an American expert on Islamist terrorism at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Tracking of these Western terrorists is very limited at best. Western intelligence agencies estimate that hundreds more terrorists – many of them veterans of the fighting in Syria – are linked to ISIS and Al-Qaida sleeper cells in Europe. Speeding up the hunt for them after the Brussels attacks could actually provide them with an incentive to act soon.
Other dangers exist in the West too, including lone-wolf terrorists – such as last December’s San Bernardino attack that left 14 dead in California. Sometimes it is enough for a person (or, in that case, couple) to become radicalized online, buy their own weapons and decide to carry out a deadly attack, independent of any communications with ISIS headquarters in the Middle East.
Erdogan rushed to attack the failure of the Belgian authorities, but he is part of the problem. For years, Turkey allowed unhindered passage of Islamic State volunteers through its territory to Syria and back, because it served the struggle against President Bashar Assad’s regime.
Last year, the European Union allocated 3 billion euros ($3.3 billion) for Turkey in the hope that this would stop the flood of refugees, most of whom are fleeing the horrors of the Syrian civil war and the region’s economic crisis. Now the EU is set to double this sum. In the meantime, Turkey is also suffering from suicide bombings, by both the Kurds and Islamic State.
Civilians, not soldiers
Israel still doesn’t know whether last Saturday’s terror attack in Istanbul – in which three Israeli tourists were murdered – was specifically targeting the Israelis (an Iranian national was the only other fatality). Evidence, still unconfirmed, points to the terrorist having followed the group after they left their hotel and waiting outside the restaurant where they were eating breakfast. It is possible the suicide bomber, an ISIS activist and Turkish citizen, recognized that they were speaking Hebrew and chose the group as his target.
The speed with which the Israeli government dispatched a plane to bring the wounded and dead back from Istanbul was admirable. But it is less clear why a military framework was required, and why Home Front Command officers stood at attention and saluted the flag-draped coffins of the three victims. They were civilians who were on a culinary trip overseas, not soldiers who fell in battle. Sometimes it seems the country is run according to the rules of a reality show, which require tears and a collective hug at any price. This is the same logic that allows an Israeli tourist buried in an avalanche in Nepal or hit by a tsunami in Japan to demand immediate intervention by the government to rescue him, no matter how much it costs.
Meanwhile, in Syria and Iraq, ISIS is being forced onto the defensive. The city of Palmyra in eastern Syria is undergoing a massive aerial bombardment by Russia – ISIS and the various affiliates of Al-Qaida are not part of the cease-fire agreement – and Syrian soldiers and Shi’ite militias are waiting in the hills surrounding the city before they enter the city to complete its conquest.
In Iraq, coalition forces led by the United States are preparing to liberate the city of Mosul from Islamic State control, even though the planned date for the attack has not yet been set. Senior U.S. defense officials are careful to project optimism: Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Joseph Dunford, sounded as if they were reading from exactly the same script in their joint appearance in Congress on Wednesday. “I’m confident that we will defeat [ISIS] and that we have the momentum of the campaign in Iraq and Syria,” said Carter. “If we can expel [ISIS] from Raqqa and Mosul, that will show that there’s no such thing as an Islamic state based upon this ideology,” he added.