Brussels attacks: Why weak security in Belgium poses a threat to all of Europe

Three blasts in Belgium — two at the Zaventem airport and one near the Maelbeek station — have claimed 34 lives (and according to some reports, injured more than 230 people) and have managed to cause panic across the world about the kind of access jihadists have to public spaces in cities.

Fourteen people were killed as two quick explosions took place in the country's biggest airport just before 8 am in a departure area, breaking windows, furniture and machinery, leaving it looking like a war zone. Authorities said a suicide bomber was to blame for one explosion and that someone was heard shouting in Arabic and open fire moments earlier. A Kalashnikov rifle was later found near the body of a dead man.

Brussels attacks: Why weak security in Belgium poses a threat to all of Europe

People holding a banner reading "I am Brussels" behind flowers and candles to mourn for the victims. AP

An hour later, another explosion shattered the middle of a three-coach train car at the Maalbeek Metro station, leaving the carriage in a heap of mangled wreck with 20 dead and 55 injured, 16 of them critically. This metro station was scarily close to the European Union headquarters.

The attack on Belgium is similar to the attacks in Paris in November 2015 that claimed 130 lives. These attacks come with a message — terror attacks are no more something that happens in some far away country, no one is immune, everywhere is penetrable and unsafe.

As in the Paris attacks, the Islamic State has claimed responsibility. These attacks in the diplomatic headquarters of the European Union have raised several questions about the security measures across the continent.

Is security really lax in Belgium?

Authorities released a photo taken from closed-circuit TV footage of three men pushing luggage carts in the airport, saying two of them apparently were suicide bombers and that the third — dressed in a light-colored coat, black hat and glasses — was at large. They urged the public to reach out to police if they recognized him. The two men believed to be the suicide attackers apparently were wearing dark gloves on their left hands, possibly to hide detonators.

While claiming responsibility, the Islamic State said its members detonated suicide vests both at the airport and in the subway, where many passengers fled to safety down dark tunnels filled with hazy smoke from the explosion. European security officials had been bracing for a major attack for weeks and warned that IS was actively preparing to strike.

However, security officials in the United States have suggested that Belgium's security officials were "sh*tty" and likened them to "children" in harsh criticism of the way they tackled their security situation.

According to The Daily Beast, US officials were frustrated by the way the Belgians tackled the Islamic State terror cells "that are successfully plotting murderous attacks on the West from inside the country’s tiny capital city".

And it was not just the United States that had criticised Belgium. Voice of America reported that Alain Marsaud, a lawmaker with France’s center-right Republican party, in the aftermath of the attacks had told a Belgian newspaper that it was the naivety of Belgium that had cost France 130 lives in the November attacks and the country was unable to manage the growing Islamic radicalism in the country.

It must be noted that the attack Paris attack was planned in Molenbeek, a neighbourhood in Brussels.

The report in Voice of America also highlights exactly how weak the Belgium's intelligence force actually is. While the world wants Belgium to up its ante against terrorism, in reality they are grossly ill-equipped to do so.

The report says that on one hand Belgium officials have admitted that they have around 800 'tier one' jihadist suspects, they have only 1,000 civil and military intelligence officers who counter the threat that these suspected jihadists pose.

How will Belgium respond to the attacks?

Reacting to the news of the terror attacks Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel said in a press conference, "What we feared has happened."

"In this time of tragedy, this black moment for our country, I appeal to everyone to remain calm but also to show solidarity," he added.

This was said as the city was put under lock down diverting all flights and trains away from the capital. Security has been beefed up in all nuclear plants in and around Brussels.

According to The Telegraph, this was after footage was discovered of a senior nuclear officer at the flat of one of the suspects of the Paris terror attacks.

Representational image. AFP

Representational image. AFP

And as surveillance was stepped up, the report quoted a senior anti-terror official as saying, "The thought of a senior nuclear official being watched is of huge concern."

A cause of concern it certainly is, not just for Belgium but the entire continent of Europe after the Islamic State, the alleged perpetrators of the attack, have shown not once, but twice with the Paris and Belgium attacks, that Europe is becoming increasingly vulnerable to acts of terror by radicalised Islamists.

While this attack will serve as a reason to step up security manifolds across Europe, many believe that would not be enough.

The New York Times quoted experts as saying that such threats from established local networks, like the one in Belgium, cannot be completely eliminated without a military style occupation.

Belgium, which is already a part of the anti-Islamic State coalition, has said that the attacks has not intimidated them in any manner.

Belgium's ambassador to the United States said on Tuesday, "We will continue to assume our responsibilities. There is no way that intimidation will be rewarded."

"Europe is a Europe without borders. These attacks were against Europe in the first place," he said.

Since the Paris attacks by Islamic State militants in November last year, it became the first country to join the US-led air strikes in Iraq. President Francois Hollande stepped up French aerial operations against Islamic State, including in Syria, contributing around 20 percent of coalition strikes.

But it is highly unlikely that Belgium will be able to what France did after the Paris attacks or what the US did after the 9/11 attacks, primarily because of lack of funds and weak security forces.

It was in July 2015 that Belgium opted out of the anti-Islamic State bombing campaign campaign. Belgium’s six F-16 fighter bombers were withdrawn from Jordan because the country said that it could not afford to continue to funding the air operation. At the same time Syrian officials had said that there had been a growing disparity between the country's military aims and actual actions.

Kristof Clerix in a piece in The Guardian pointed out that while Belgium has been aware of the heightened threat it is under, the lack of funds has been the bane for its security agencies.

It is perhaps the poor security situation in Belgium that led to the realisation of the perceived threat that had existed for a long time

However, what perhaps is a semblance of hope is that the Michel government, as The Guardian report suggests, has realised the gravity and announced an additional budget of €400 million (nearly $450 million) for anti-terror forces.

But even as Belgium tries to strengthen its forces, it remains a weak link in the European continent, posing a threat to the other countries as well.

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Updated Date: Mar 23, 2016 14:55:05 IST

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