Foreigners in the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) might have ordered the attacks on Brussels, but the perpetrators apparently were all Europeans. At least thirty-four people were killed and more than 250 wounded on March 22—the numbers are still being counted. Brussels has just faced its own equivalent of London’s July 7 attacks. It is imperative to respond appropriately and assess critically.
Details of the attack will continue to unfold over the coming days. What is known presently is only the following: two coordinated attacks were successfully planned and executed on Belgian soil. The attackers were Europeans. Beyond that, we do not know if there were other attacks that might have been called off or delayed.
There will be those who claim that the bombings were in response to the recent arrest in Brussels of a suspect in the Paris attacks in November of 2015. On the contrary, it is far more likely that the crackdown on Salah Abdeslam and his network lessened the impact of the attacks on Brussels. These attacks would have likely been in the works to begin with, and the crackdown either disrupted elements of it, or forced the attackers to move forward more quickly, or both. What will be of great concern, nevertheless, is if this is the same network that was responsible for attacking Paris. That would mean that a security crackdown with the full force of the Belgian state and EU-wide cooperation did not dispel the efficacy of the network, even after it had earlier carried out a massive attack.
We are now in the “day after” mode and there are already some dire questions. Belgian security services are overstretched tracking radical Islamist recruits to ISIL (also known as ISIS) abroad—Belgians make up the largest number of ISIL terrorists, proportionately, of any European country. If that means that there is a capacity problem domestically it must be acknowledged and dealt with immediately. Security of the Belgian homeland cannot be ensured otherwise.
But this is not a Belgian issue alone. This is a European one. While there is an absurd amount of navel gazing in the European political establishment about the future of the European Union, security cooperation on the continent remains problematic. It is not necessarily about poor intentions—indeed, there is a lot of readiness across the continent to engage in cooperation—it is about poor connectivity.
Brussels was not targeted because Belgian troops are stationed abroad. Brussels was targeted because it is a European target—and identified as more vulnerable than other European targets. Europe must respond not simply morally, but strategically. A weakness in one European state will affect other European states. Therefore, a Europe-wide common domestic security policy is vital.
As European leaders consider that necessity, which now must be a prime concern for all European establishments, they must also consider the social consequences and political impacts of the Brussels attacks. In times of crisis, there are always individuals or groups with base tendencies that will try to exploit the situation. In Syria, for example, Bashar Assad’s regime has tried to use the attacks in Brussels as a way to bolster its own disastrous policies. In the United States, Republican presidential frontrunner, Donald Trump, unsurprisingly, has repeated his suggestion that “the Muslims” be kept from entering the country. Ted Cruz, another Republican presidential candidate, declared “we need to empower law enforcement to patrol and secure Muslim neighborhoods before they become radicalized.”
Other far-right politicians in Europe will no doubt conflate terrorism with refugees, and radicalism with Muslims en masse. That kind of rank populism does not aid in any counterterrorism strategy, it only ensures it becomes more difficult. Beyond concerns for counterterrorism, it is ethically abhorrent to tar an entire community because of the actions of a tiny minority. European leaders have to be smarter and better than that.
There will be others that try to blame the attacks in Brussels in some way on bad foreign policy. But Belgium is not involved in propping up Assad against ISIL. There are no Belgian troops in Damascus or Aleppo. Brussels was targeted because it is a Western nation that opposes, even if simply politically, ISIL. On this no coexistence is possible; not between Belgium and ISIL; not beyond Europe and ISIL; not between the Muslim world and ISIL (it is Muslims who suffer the most from ISIL, by far); and not between the world and ISIL.
Most of all, perhaps, is the need for European politicians to recognize that this is not a short-term crisis. This struggle will be a long haul one. There will almost definitely be more attacks. Europe has to be able to absorb the effects, counter them, and minimize the damage. That has to be done in a manner that reflects the best of European values, instead of a reaction founded in our most base human instincts. That means getting smarter on intelligence cooperation among European states while resisting the temptation to sacrifice civil liberties.
We must also recognize this one truism: Brussels wasn’t actually the target. We all were—Belgians and other Europeans; Europeans and non-Europeans; Muslims and non-Muslims. We all are the target and we all must stand united, in common cause, with common respect, against a common foe.
H.A. Hellyer is a Nonresident Senior Fellow in the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, and an Associate Fellow in International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute in London. Follow him on Twitter @hahellyer.