- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 22, 2016

The deadly coordinated terrorist bombings that rocked the subway and main airport in Brussels at the height of rush hour Tuesday suggest the Islamic State’s network in the heart of Europe is far stronger and more elusive than intelligence officials first thought in the immediate aftermath of the deadly November attacks on Paris.

What may be even more disturbing, however, is that Tuesday’s plotters managed to pull off a sophisticated, coordinated operation — hitting distinct, guarded targets and using heavy explosives — right under the noses of authorities engaged in one of the most intensive counterterrorism crackdowns ever mounted in a European capital.

Since November, Belgian officials have carried out dozens of raids in Brussels — the home of the European Union and NATO — targeting sympathizers and operatives of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS and ISIL. The most recent, just four days earlier, netted a man who police hoped was the last surviving member of the Islamic State cell accused of carrying out the attacks in Paris.

On Friday, authorities arrested Salah Abdeslam, who is now believed to have spent the past four months moving among a series of clandestine safe houses in Brussels with the support of a significant number of other jihadis loyal to the Islamic State, which has headquarters in Syria and Iraq.

At least one other suspect was killed in the raid, and authorities questioning Abdeslam reportedly found that he was engaged in plotting additional attacks in Europe. It was still unclear late Tuesday whether Abdeslam’s capture had accelerated the attacks, but some analysts said there was little doubt about a connection between the arrest and the Brussels bombings.

“The attacks have all the signs of ISIS and were most likely committed by [Abdeslam’s] contacts,” said Ryan Mauro of the Clarion Project, a Washington-based website focused on Islamic terrorist movements.

“The dilemma we face is that every time a jihadist is arrested, his or her contacts will be tempted to strike before being apprehended as well,” Mr. Mauro said. “The attacks in Brussels [were] coordinated and involve multiple suspects. They show that the ISIS presence in Europe has grown into a network.”

Former U.S. intelligence official Malcolm W. Nance went further.

“We are now in a strategic campaign by ISIS to destabilize Europe,” said Mr. Nance, who heads the New York-based Terror Asymmetrics Project on Strategy, Tactics & Radical Ideology.

“Paris was just the beginning of this, but over the last two years [the Islamic State] has been running operatives back from Syria to Europe, Europe to Syria, and giving them operational experience,” he said during an interview with MSNBC.

With hundreds of France- and Belgium-born fighters known to have returned from the Islamic State stronghold to their home countries, Mr. Nance said, the group’s European footprint may well consist of “a constellation of terrorist cells” operating in secrecy and with independence from one another.

Recruiting ground

Intelligence officials have closely watched Belgium since late 2013, when it suddenly became clear that the small country’s relatively large population of North African immigrants had emerged as a ripe recruiting ground for extremists in Syria and Iraq.

Reports indicate that more than 450 of Belgium’s 11 million citizens have become Islamic State fighters — with some 80 percent of them of Moroccan descent, a much higher figure than have come from the United States. While more than 1,000 foreign fighters have also come from France, on a per capita basis, the number from Belgium is the highest in Europe.

U.S. intelligence officials began warning more than a year ago of the threat to European nations if those foreign fighters returned home. After the Paris attacks in November, CIA Director John O. Brennan said bluntly that the ability of European intelligence agencies to monitor such individuals was “under strain.”

Brussels became a particular focal point for European counterterrorism officials in June 2014, when a gunman linked to the Islamic State shot and killed four people at the city’s Jewish Museum of Belgium.

In November, the city went into lockdown mode when authorities identified Abdelhamid Abaaoud — a Belgian man of Moroccan descent and a known Islamic State operative — as one of the key architects of the Paris attacks.

Abaaoud was ultimately killed by police outside Paris, but authorities believe much of the planning for the assault on the French capital was carried out in Brussels by jihadis with ties to the city’s Molenbeek-Saint-Jean district.

Molenbeek, one of 19 municipalities in the greater Brussels region, has a large and impoverished population of Muslim immigrants from Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, largely isolated from the rest of the population. It’s where Abaaoud grew up. It’s also where authorities captured Abdeslam on Friday.

The neighborhood and its connection to the Islamic State have been the subject of much hand-wringing by Belgian political leaders during recent months. The biggest questions have centered on how an area in the heart of Brussels and a short distance from the headquarters of the European Union could be allowed to emerge as such a hotbed for Islamic extremism.

Molenbeek is one of the most densely populated parts of Brussels, with a population of roughly 95,000 people.

“It’s not that the entire borough is a no-go zone,” according to a recent profile of the district in Politico Europe magazine. “The lawlessness problems are concentrated in much smaller areas.

“That Molenbeek has been allowed to become a breeding ground for jihadism says some damning things about formal and informal structures in Belgium, and in particular Brussels,” it added.

But the area is just one of many Muslim enclaves peppered across Belgium and France — enclaves that have grown dramatically in recent decades. The total number of Muslims living across Western Europe is projected to hit 50 million in 2020, a 72 percent increase from 30 years ago.

More attacks coming?

The Foundation for Defense of Democracies’ Long War Journal on Tuesday said the Islamic State remains “a threat to France, Belgium and other European nations,” where known terrorists are “slipping through the cracks because European officials are being forced to investigate more threats than ever.”

“ISIS and its deadly foot soldiers remain fully capable of hitting soft targets in Europe despite the security enhancements after Paris,” said Matt Mayer, a former Department of Homeland Security official and visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

Mr. Mayer said the attacks demonstrated that Abdeslam’s arrest had not crippled the Islamic State operation inside Brussels, in particular the ability to fashion sophisticated explosives and to recruit and deploy suicide bombers to deliver them.

“Law enforcement alone won’t be able to stop these attacks,” he said. “It will require citizens and immigrants living near those planning these attacks to share what they know or suspect with police proactively.”

Others say the attacks have already done great damage to Europe’s struggle to integrate Muslim immigrant communities into the Continent’s wider social fabric.

“Europe,” said Mr. Mauro of the Clarion Project, “has got to find a way to make these areas identify with the European identity and Western democratic values.”

In its message claiming responsibility, Islamic State leaders noted that Belgium is one of the nations “participating in the international coalition against the Islamic State” and warned of more attacks to come.

A Twitter post shared by prominent Islamic State backers featured the words, “What will be coming is worse.”

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Manage Newsletters

Copyright © 2021 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide