Sunday,23 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1289, (31 March - 6 April 2016)
Sunday,23 September, 2018
Issue 1289, (31 March - 6 April 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Aftermath of Brussels terror

A series of arrests and rising public concern at possible copycat attacks have marked the aftermath of last week’s terrorist attacks in Brussels, writes David Tresilian in Paris

Al-Ahram Weekly

In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on the Brussels airport and metro system on 22 March that left 35 people dead and 340 wounded, the Belgian police and security forces have been moving swiftly to track down suspects believed to have taken part in the atrocities and to secure the country against possible further attacks.

However, like in the aftermath of the killings at the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris last January and the killings in the French capital last November that saw some 130 people killed and over 350 wounded, this month’s attacks in Brussels have given rise to forebodings that more attacks may be yet to come.

Reports in the European press this week have indicated that last November’s attacks in Paris and those last week in Brussels were linked, with the same terrorist cell, affiliated to the terror group Islamic State (IS), being responsible for both sets of attacks.

While this cell has now apparently been largely dismantled, there are fears that elements from it, still on the run, could be planning further attacks in Brussels, Paris or other European cities as part of an IS strategy to spread terror across the continent.

The attacks, targeting the Zaventem Airport to the north of Brussels and the Maelbeek underground station in the centre of the city near the European Union institutions, took place when two suicide bombers blew themselves up in the departure area of the airport and a third suicide bomber blew himself up on an underground train an hour or so later.

Timed to take place during the morning rush hour, the attacks were carried out by brothers Ibrahim Al-Bakraoui and Khaled Al-Bakraoui, according to media reports, both of whom were already known to the Belgian authorities. A third man, Najim Laachraoui, also carried out the airport attack, while a fourth, at present of unknown identity, is being sought by Belgian and European police.

In a pattern that emerged in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo and Paris killings late last year, the perpetrators of the recent attacks, in most cases French or Belgian citizens of North African origin, have been shown to have had sometimes extensive criminal records and in some cases to have apparently become radicalised in prison.

The Al-Bakraoui brothers are believed to have held meetings with the perpetrators of last November’s Paris attacks and to have lived for a time in the same part of Brussels as some of them.

Their links with the Paris killers and with young Europeans fighting on behalf of IS in Syria have led to criticisms of the Belgian authorities for not having acted earlier to arrest the brothers and thus to have perhaps prevented the attacks.

According to media reports last week, Ibrahim Al-Bakraoui, who blew himself up at Brussels Airport, had earlier been deported from Turkey on his way to join IS forces and the Belgian authorities had been alerted.

However, they did nothing to apprehend Al-Bakraoui, who had in any case been serving a nine-year prison sentence for armed robbery before his trip to Turkey. He had been released after serving less than half of it on the orders of the Belgian probation authorities.

What the French newspaper Le Monde called a “pattern of failures” on the part of the Belgian security services to detain those responsible for the Brussels attacks before they could set off bombs in the Belgian capital led the country’s ministers of the interior and justice to offer their resignations last week.

However, these were refused by the Belgian prime minister on the grounds that they could damage the country’s coalition government.

In the days following the Brussels attacks, the Belgian security forces carried out raids on addresses across the country, arresting around a dozen suspects for questioning. At the same time, police in France carried out raids at addresses in Paris and elsewhere, arresting French national Reda Kriket, 34, who is believed to be a major IS recruiter in Europe.

Another man, named as Belgian national Fayçal Cheffou, was arrested by Belgian police at the weekend. There has been speculation that Cheffou, already known to the security services, could be the “man in the hat” seen in close-circuit television pictures from Brussels Airport apparently showing three, and not two, suicide bombers. 

Meanwhile, reports in the European media have been focusing on the vulnerabilities exposed by the Brussels attacks and the reasons behind the city’s targeting by terrorist elements.

Particular attention has been given to the Brussels district of Molenbeek, home to some of the terrorists who carried out last November’s Paris attacks and associated with Salah Abdeslam, one of the surviving terrorists, who was arrested in the district just days before the Brussels attacks.

According to Pierre Vermeren, a professor of contemporary Arab history at the Sorbonne in Paris interviewed in Le Monde last week, Belgium has become a “security black hole,” in which impoverished communities have been “left in the hands of radical preachers” eager to take advantage of “social disintegration” and often catastrophic levels of unemployment.

Hind Fraihi, a Belgian journalist, argued in the same newspaper last week that Molenbeek and other parts of Belgium associated with the Brussels and Paris attacks have been “abandoned” by the authorities and have experienced an alarming rise in the influence of extremist ideologies pushing some young people into joining IS or similar groups.

“I saw with my own eyes publications saying that all unbelievers should be killed” distributed in Molenbeek, Fraihi said. “They are being given out in underground mosques, bookstores and by community organisations. It is a very visible form of totalitarianism,” she said, winked at by the authorities and aiming to silence or intimidate residents.

According to other commentators, the Brussels attacks, combined with those last year in Paris, have made it all the more urgent to intervene further in Syria against IS forces.

Writing in Le Monde last week, Jean-Pierre Filiu, a French commentator on Arab affairs, said that “only a ground operation against the town of Rakka led by Syrian revolutionary forces and supported by the anti-Daesh [the Arabic acronym of IS] coalition, will reverse the triumphalist dynamic of [IS leader] Al-Baghdadi’s followers.”

For Gilles Kepel, a French expert on extremist Islamist movements, also writing in Le Monde, Belgium has been targeted by IS because the country “is in an advanced state of communitarianism,” with the country’s different communities not necessarily having any shared set of political or other references.

However, the organisation’s overall strategy has been thrown into crisis by reverses in Syria and by widespread revulsion at its violent methods, Kepel said, meaning that it has had no choice but to fall back on petty criminals to carry out its operations, formed in impoverished areas like Molenbeek where “crime and Islamism are intimately linked.”

“Instead of talking endlessly about ‘radicalisation’, one needs to think more carefully about the nature of the challenge presented by the jihadists,” Kepel said. “It might have been thought that the jihadists would flush out criminals and delinquents, but in fact the experience of Molenbeek shows that petty crime and Salafism can be mixed, as can drug-dealing and terrorism.”

“The [current] third generation of jihadists does not work according to a pyramidal model,” with clear lines of authority coming from the top as had perhaps been the case of jihadists working for Al-Qaeda and other organisations. Instead, the jihadists work “like swarms or Silicon Valley start-ups,” he said, and this explained why the authorities had sometimes been unable effectively to halt their activities.

In addition to calling attention once again to Brussels and the alleged failures of the Belgian authorities, the latest round of IS attacks in Europe may lead to further discrimination against Syrian and other refugees hoping to find a welcome in Europe.

Already several Eastern European states are refusing to respect their obligations to settle refugees set out under an EU-wide agreement, and there have been further episodes of anti-refugee and anti-Muslim sentiment.

At the weekend, a demonstration in Brussels aimed at expressing solidarity with those who died in the attacks was hijacked by extreme-right demonstrators shouting anti-migrant slogans and making Nazi-style salutes.

A memorial “march against fear” initially planned for Sunday was earlier called off as a result of fears of extreme-right demonstrations. Riot police with water cannon cleared the area and 10 people were arrested.

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