The Brussels Attacks: Years in the Making


Tweet Now Share on Facebook

Welcome to the View from Brussels, a perspective from the de facto capital of Europe on the state of counterterrorism, extremism, and radicalisation throughout the European Union.


When ISIS suicide bombers attacked Zaventem airport and the Maelbeek metro station on 22 March, a sense of horror descended on the city that is not just our home but the European heart of what our organization does: fight extremism.

For groups like ours that have been combating growing radicalization not just in Belgium but throughout Europe at least since 2001, the horror and pain of lives lost and families shattered in Brussels was indeed a cruel tragedy. It was also one that, unfortunately, was predictable for some time.

Europe as a target of Jihadist terror is not new. France in the 1990s was the target of the Armed Islamic Group from Algeria. In 2004 and 2005, attacks in Madrid and London killed hundreds and ushered in a new reality: Jihad, as interpreted by al-Qaeda, was not the spiritual struggle described in the Quran.

Fifteen years after 9/11, it is simply unconscionable that we cannot stop basic terrorist networks. It was a catastrophic intelligence failure not be able to root out a network operating right in front of us. But it would be overly simplistic to focus all the blame on the intelligence and police forces. Without political support and financial resources, law enforcement agencies cannot function properly.

Here’s what must happen in Brussels and elsewhere in Europe to prevent the next ISIS attack.

To begin with, we must end shallow, incident-driven policy responses. Too often, political support for change dwindles in the months following a terror incident as media attention dies down. This has to change.

The lack of communication and intelligence sharing between and among services is an immediate crisis that must be addressed. What is needed is the imposition of cooperation between and among intelligence services in Europe. They need to be forced to cooperate. The fragmented nature of the Belgian system, with multiple layers of bureaucracy, three working languages, 19 communes in Brussels alone, and six separate police units, starkly illustrates this challenge.

Europol must be given the resources to be able to do a more effective job of monitoring online resources that allow extremists to propagandize, radicalize and recruit freely. The EU Internet Forum, formed following the Paris attacks, is meant to facilitate cooperation between the European Commission and IT companies with the involvement of the European Parliament. However, four months later, it is unclear how or when it will begin.

Europeans of Muslim faith who want to promote universal human rights and European values need to be supported in a more strategic and sustainable way. They are the credible messengers best equipped to counter Islamist propaganda and are often the most concerned about the spread of radicalization in Muslim communities.

The reality is that for the past 15 years, the European mainstream political class has refused to deal with the growing phenomenon of Islamist radicalisation in the name of political correctness. Belgium, just like the rest of Europe, has irresponsibly continued to engage with and empower groups and organizations that embrace that same ideology that is at core of Islamist terrorism in all its shades of violence.  This is the case for the many NGOs, think tanks and charities that are directly or indirectly affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood or other Islamist structures.

Municipalities, and state and federal governments need to review their existing cooperation with and funding of so-called Islamic organizations to determine if those organizations are actually working on integrating individuals into European societies or if they are advocating for segregation and a parallel society. 

To prevent future attacks of terror by violent extremists in Belgium and beyond will require an unprecedented combination of approaches, from countering extremist ideologies to more effective intelligence gathering and information sharing. 

We are about to learn if Europe can reject its traditional insular habits and make the meaningful changes necessary to better protect all its citizens.