The Brussels bomb attacks that took place on Mar. 22 echo the Nov. 13 Paris multiple attacks, fueling fears in Europe, while being an ominous reminder that the global terror threat is a big challenge for Russia and the West.
Airport workers embrace as they leave the scene of explosions at Zaventem airport near Brussels, Belgium, March 22, 2016. Photo: Reueters
A series of suicide bomb attacks in Brussels killed at least 28 people on Mar. 22, with two huge blasts at the city’s airport and another at a metro station in the immediate vicinity of the EU headquarters. The first two explosions took place at the Zaventem airport just before 8 a.m., resulting in the death of at least 13 people and leaving about 35 injured. Soon after, another explosion shook the Maalbeek metro station, leaving 15 dead, according to media reports.
These incidents show all signs of a coordinated, well-orchestrated attack like in the deadly multiple attacks in Paris on November 13, 2015. Coincidentally, the attacks came a day after Jan Jambon, Belgium’s interior minister, warned that terror attacks might take place following last week’s arrest of Salah Abdeslam, a suspected participant of November’s Paris attacks.
In fact, the attacks may be the first suicide bombings in Belgium, spurring fears about the growing threat from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS).
Following the Nov. 13 Paris attacks last year, Belgium was mentioned by investigators in the context of revealing the reasons for the shooting and their probable orchestrators. In 2015 there were many media reports warning of the emergence of Jihadi cells in Belgium and the threat of new terror acts on the country’s territory.
At this moment it appears that the explosions in Brussels airport and metro station confirmed the most pessimistic forecasts and warnings. Now Belgium is in the spotlight and journalists are likely to describe the fourth Tuesday of March as “the Belgian 9/11.”
The terror acts in this small EU country are also important symbolically. After all, Brussels is a symbol of the European Union and the North Atlantic integration. This is the place where the European Commission works. The European parliament conducts sessions in the Belgian capital, not too far from where the alleged terrorist acts took place. Brussels is the location of NATO’s headquarters, which is deemed as the guarantor of Europe’s security.
The very fact that the terror act took place in the district of the Maalbeek metro station (not far from the Schuman station, where the European Commission is located), thus paralyzing the work of the EU institutes, is very indicative. Even the Brussels bureaucracy, legendary for its power, is very vulnerable to terrorists in practice.
However, while bringing new deaths and human tragedies, the Brussels explosions have not revealed anything new in the tactics employed by terrorists who conduct simultaneous attacks in different places (the method also used in Mumbai and Paris). Neither did these attacks change the ways in which the world should tackle security challenges.
According to the famous political expert and columnist David von Drehle, today’s terrorism is “the Gray War, a war without fronts, without armies, without rules, in which the weapon can be any commercial jet and the target any building anywhere.”
And today, the dominating format of the conflict is not the face-off between two countries, but rather an asymmetric confrontation. This means that regular states are in confrontation not with each other, but with networks, or non-state actors, which don’t have any defined territory or state hierarchy. On the top of that, these non-state actors are conducting war against each other and tactfully cooperating with different state institutions.
However, the most recent tragedy in the capital of a united Europe raised problems, which were previously seen as either elephant-in-the-room problems or insignificant issues. But they require immediate resolve and tenacity.
Terrorism and political symbolism
To reiterate, the terror acts took place in the capital of the biggest military-political block, NATO, which deems itself a reliable defender of Europe and its values. However, what are the goals of establishing this shield? Whom does it target and why? Today, many politicians and columnists are creating a buzz around the return of the Cold War.
However, this metaphor is incorrect if speaking about Europe’s security problems. Instead of fueling the confrontational spirit between Russia and NATO, politicians should focus on real questions of security – pragmatically and realistically. NATO’s attempts to contain Russia and its military build-up that have been taking place for last two decades have not brought more security to Europe.
In fact, NATO powerful military potential, which expanded further into the Eastern Europe, was ineffective in responding to these asymmetric challenges and conflicts. NATO’s military missiles and its huge arsenals of regular weapons (as well as its military bases and centers) cannot defend Europe from lone wolf suicide bombers, who commit terror acts in subways, airports, bus stations or elsewhere. These brazen acts are no longer happening only in third world countries, but in the center of free world: in Europe.
NATO seems to be ineffective in fighting ideology, which has become a serious challenge for linear progress thinking. The world has failed to track the shift of geopolitical challenges from Europe to the Middle East and was unable to adequately assess these new challenges. Global leaders have spoken about the threats of the 21st century in very general terms without giving much thought to their own mistakes and responsibility for their policy in the Middle East.
But, nevertheless, the West’s top brass and politicians seem to be preparing for a war that has long since passed; 25 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union they are warning against Russia’s threat and the so-called “Sovietization”. Yet the threat comes from others actors, which see both Russia and the West as enemies, as indicated by the rhetoric of the notorious Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria, a terrorist organization forbidden in Russia.
But so far, Russia and the West weaken their counter-terrorism potential due to their ongoing confrontation. Meanwhile, the terrorist-led “gray war” becomes commonplace for ordinary Europeans. Thus, there is an urgent need to correct the model of European security, with NATO’s expansion as its major attribute.
Obviously, this reform cannot be conducted immediately. But at least global leaders could put forward this problem to the current security agenda. Russia’s involvement in devising a new agenda is important given its experience and the same vulnerability to terror threats.
Besides, the existence of a real and dangerous problem such as the Islamic radicalism and extremism does not mean that the line of confrontation has a strictly confessional character. It would be too simplistic to explain everything with the concept of “the conflict of civilizations.”
Islamic communities already have been formed and have spread throughout European countries, some of their representatives are well-integrated in all areas of the European society, including the governmental structures and police bodies. It would be an unforgivable mistake to see all Muslims in the EU as terrorists who attacked Paris in 2015 and Brussels this week.
For quite some time now, Islamic radicals and extremists in the Middle East, Central and South Asia are fighting against supporters of the secular model, in which religion does not determine the diversity of political and social life. Muslims in Russia, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan and other post-Soviet countries also support this model. So, it might be good for European security to find optimal cooperation formats with countries in other regions.
Avoiding alarmism, hysteria and hasty comments regarding “the death of Europe” in the aftermath of the Brussels tragedy can teach us some important lessons but the question whether those who make crucial policy decisions have enough political will to do that remains.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.