Following the terrorist attacks in Brussels, Europe could well take into consideration the experiences of Israeli and Russian intelligence agencies and police. But how effective will these measures be?
Firefighters stand next to blown out windows at Zaventem Airport in Brussels after the Mar. 22 terror attacks. Photo: AP
Four days after the arrest of the main suspect in the 2015 November terrorist attacks in Paris, Salah Abdeslam, Europe was again shaken by explosions. The latest attacks by radical extremists, carried out in the subway and at an airport, shocked the very capital of the European Union – Brussels, claiming more than 30 lives.
The actions of the Belgian police force – raids carried out in the immigrant quarter of Molenbeek, storming of a safe house of Islamic extremists, and successful detention of five suspects – failed to prevent new attacks. Moreover, in the context of the recent successes racked up by the Belgian security forces, these actions of the extremists seem to send a message, and a challenge, to Europeans: You cannot catch us all.
The terror attacks in European capitals is likely to continue, and now the big question remains: Will law enforcement agencies of the EU countries be able to prevent such attacks in the future?
For the terrorist attacks on Mar. 22 in Brussels, the terrorists did not invent anything new, sticking to well-proven tactics. First, they attacked a key object – the Zaventem Airport, and about an hour later, when a substantial part of the police force had already moved to the site of the terrorist attack, with a small difference in timing, explosions went off in neighboring subway stations, in an area where most administrative bodies of the EU are located.
According to preliminary data, the terrorists involved in this attack were using so-called “suicide belts,” but some of the bombs apparently were simply left at the airport, where that evening police found an explosive device that had not blown up.
Attacking in different parts of the city, with small intervals between the attacks, allows the terrorists to confuse the police, to distract them from the location of the next explosion, and slow down the adoption of measures to evacuate victims from objects that are subject to the second round of attacks. After all, by this time, most of the equipment and the mobile police forces are already deployed in order to encircle the place of the first explosion.
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As for the perpetrators of these attacks, in most cases in Europe, suicide bombers themselves – being the most vulnerable to capture during the preparation of acts of terrorism – are not needed. Those who carried the bombs into the subway and the airport of the Belgian capital ran very little risk of being detained, since there were no inspection points on the paths they had taken.
However, no passive measures, such as strict control at airports, railway stations or public places, can stop a well-trained terrorist. Nevertheless, they do significantly complicate and slow down the preparation of the terrorist act. This, in turn, gives security services more opportunities to obtain information about the attack that is being planned, and prevent it. How exactly this is done – through informants, interception of communications channels, mass surveys and psychological examinations of migrants entering the country, analysis of information about purchases of substances that may be used for the manufacture of bombs – is not so important.
Thus, in Russia, which has been suffering from terrorist attacks since the early 1990s, security services have developed a series of measures that prevent acts of terrorism, based on bitter and bloody experience. Law enforcement personnel, responsible for the protection of objects hosting mass gatherings, undergo lengthy briefings on how to spot suspicious individuals in a crowd. Tickets for planes and trains can be purchased only upon presentation of personal ID documentation. Moreover, strict pre-entry screening has been implemented not only for aircraft, but also for express trains. In addition, detailed inspections are carried out at all Russian airports as well as at most major train stations.
However, these effective security measures did not come about from thin air. As recently as in August 2004, two female suicide bombers not only managed to purchase tickets for domestic flights without any ID documents, but also, for a small bribe, were able to get onto the airplanes without going through the screening process. Today, 12 years later, something like this happening is practically impossible.
After an explosion in January 2011 in Domodedovo, one of the three airports in Moscow, Russian airport terminals have been turned into virtual small fortresses – and these security measures are paying off. Thus, in January 2013, a female suicide bomber could not get into a train station in Volgograd, where turnstiles had been installed, and then when she saw police heading towards her, she set off the bomb in the entrance area. This greatly reduced the number of victims.
Nevertheless, terrorist attacks against Russia have not stopped. Thus, the Airbus plane crash over Egypt's Sinai in October 2015, in which 224 people lost their lives, has been recognized as a terrorist attack. Moreover, according to experts, the bomb was planted on the plane at the time it was being loaded – something made possible due to the lax security measures in place in Egypt.
Russians traveling in Europe today are always surprised by the absence of the safeguards they have become accustomed to back at home. Most train stations and airports have no security checkpoints at their entrances, police can hardly be seen in the subways, while metal detectors were a rarity until recently. Even pre-flight inspections at many airports are not as rigorous as they are in Russia.
However, even Russia is far behind Israel in this sphere, where the threat of terrorist attacks is constant, and unprecedented security measures have been implemented. After many years of confrontation with Islamist extremists, Israel has not only trained its citizens how to behave in case of a terrorist attack, but also created a comprehensive system for the verification and screening of visitors for most places where there are mass gatherings of people.
Of course, this does not stop terrorist acts from being perpetrated. Thus, just during the period between October 1, 2015 to March 21, 2016, 33 people were killed in a series of attacks committed by extremists. However, in almost all these individual cases, the death toll did not exceed a couple of people.
Moreover, most of these terrorists were killed by return fire coming from quickly reacting security forces, or were apprehended. But then again, Israel has been living in a state of undeclared war and suffering from constant terrorist attacks since its inception. For now, Europe has only suffered from a few high-profile terrorist attacks each year.
At the same time, the potential threat of a global terrorist war being unleashed against the EU is very large. Extremist cells do not need to coordinate their actions with each other. They can be quite small in number and fully autonomous, and the actions of any of these are capable of paralyzing, for a few days, the life of any European metropolis.
All that is needed is commands being issued from a center, which may not even receive feedback communications from the leaders of extremist cells. At the same time, a huge flow of refugees and a very lax migration policy, does not allow law enforcement agencies in European countries to effectively filter out potential terrorists, or identify delivery channels for weapons and explosives. Of course, security forces of European countries do prevent many terrorist attacks that the media is never informed about, and rightfully so. However, each detained terrorist, whose guilt has to be proven in court, is at once replaced by several others.
At the same time, even the introduction of comprehensive verification measures and raising the level of training of law enforcement officers, will not become the ideal panacea. After all, it is possible that these changes will lead to significant dissatisfaction among residents of the European Union, who are used to living without strict control, monitoring, and domination by the police. It is also too late to change the migration policy, already millions of people from Africa and Asia have moved permanently to Europe, many of which share the ideals of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS), an organization that is banned in Russia, along with other extremist organizations.
Moreover, this is not the first time that ideas of radical Islamism have been popular among citizens and immigrants in European countries. Even if one assumes that the international coalition will be able to restore order in the Middle East, and Iraq and Syria will regain all territories currently occupied by ISIS, extremist cells will not disappear from Europe, nor will the ideas of radical Islamism, which, as the Russian proverb says, “cannot be fought with guns.”
And so, the EU countries have only one way to go – to learn from the Israeli and Russian experiences, strengthen their security arrangements, train their citizens on how to behave in case of a threat of an extremist attack, and create new anti-terrorist law enforcement units.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.