22 March 2017 marks the first anniversary of one of the darkest days in the history of Belgium: the terrorist atrocity on the city’s airport in Zaventem and the Maalbeek metro station in the EU quarters that claimed the lives of 32 innocent people. The twin attacks one year ago shocked people around the world but, almost a year on, the question remains: is the city any safer today? According to Serge Stroobants, an adjunct professor with a military background at Vesalius College in Brussels, “pretty much nothing has changed”. The threat is still present and the counter-terrorism response could still be improved. “While the threat will always evolve to maintain its advantage of the surprise, our counter-terrorism actions also have had an effect”.
A recent report makes for worrying reading. According to trade unions at Brussels Airport, security there can still be improved. After providing testimony to the Belgian parliamentary commission of enquiry looking into the attacks, union spokesman Bart Neyens concluded that while 100% security can never be guaranteed, there was “clearly room for improvement.”
His concerns are shared by Brussels-based security analyst John Duhig from the European Foundation for Democracy who says, “Brussels remains on a state of high alert as indiscriminate, lone-wolf attacks are considered possible or likely.”
The last terror swoop by Belgian security services was as recent as 14 January this year in Brussels when three suspects were arrested. This followed a similar raid on 19 December last year though this was overshadowed by the coverage of the Christmas market attack in Berlin.
Duhig cautions: “Attacks on ‘soft targets’ are more difficult to prevent, as they require less preparation and communication than more complex operation. They are more difficult for the authorities to detect and stop. The threat of lone wolf attacks initiated by those who have never left Europe and been radicalised online remains a significant threat.”
While he does not go into detail, Eric Jacobs, director of the federal judicial authorities for Brussels, says that “at least” six terrorist attacks in Belgium have been prevented since the end of 2014 –planned both by lone wolves or members of a criminal network.
"They are often petty criminals, who are not integrated well enough in our society,” says Jacobs.
Since last year, the battle against terrorism has been "stepped up” and it’s encouraging, he believes, that police are receiving an increasing number of tip-offs from local Muslim communities showing that “many people” from the Muslim community are at odds with terrorists who claim to act in their name.
After a 32-year police career, he has seen a “major change” in the threat posed by terrorism, adding, "When we were tackling terrorism 20 years ago we were concerned about a maximum of two radical groups but this number has grown.”
A curious spin off of the current crackdown is that, according to figures from the medical service, officers in the anti-terrorism divisions of the federal police take “considerably more” sick leave than the average police officer.
These are the people in the frontline of the city’s war against terror and Rob Wainwright, British director of Europol, the EU police agency based in The Hague, says that due to the extra security measures, which came into force after the terrorist attacks in Brussels, it has become “more difficult” to commit atrocities in Belgium.
But, ominously, he also warns of further terrorist attacks. "I believe that the threat is still high. An attack is likely, even very probable," he says.
He agrees with Jacobs in saying that many terrorists start out as criminals and lessons need to be drawn from this, adding, "Most terrorists involved in the Brussels attacks have a criminal background, which is a big change from the past. We need a new approach."
With heavily armed soldiers on the city’s streets still an all too familiar sight, efforts to protect the citizens of Brussels have gone international. An official at NATO, which has its headquarters in Brussels, explained its role, saying:
“In relation to the security of civilian facilities in our member nations, what NATO does is to help allies by providing a platform for sharing intelligence; advice on civil emergency planning; exercises to test emergency procedures and funding for science cooperation on critical infrastructure protection.
While Jan Kooy, at Human Rights Watch (HRW) accepts the necessity for the measures that have been introduced to counter the threat from ISIS and others, he is concerned about the approach police now adopt towards suspects who can be held in solitary confinement, while passports of possible Syria fighters can be suspended.
HRW looked into 26 separate incidents in which police were accused of physically assaulting terror suspects. Kooy says there is a risk of a tough approach being counterproductive, adding, "When people feel their rights are being respected, then they will be more prone to cooperate.”
Impact on daily life and economy
Serge Stroobants observes that Belgium has been living under threat level 3 out of 4 for more than two years now. “France is still applying the state of emergency which started during the night after the Paris attacks in November 2015. This situation is not temporary; it the new European security situation.”
The Belgian Road Safety Institute (BIVV), which also studies security as well as road safety, says that surveys show that no less than one in three Belgians have changed their behaviour to take account of the threat from terrorism. After fears of burglary, Belgians are most concerned about the threat from terrorism.
The majority of those surveyed that have changed their behaviour also say that they go less frequently to public events, where there are a lot of people. They also avoid public places, such as shopping centres and cinemas and have become “more suspicious of people they don’t know.”
The BIVV survey showed that one in five Belgians believes that “it is probable” that an attack will be carried out within a 15 km radius of where they live; 52% that there is “no real solution” to the threat and that “we should learn to live with it” and 84% don’t believe the threat in Brussels is a temporary phenomenon that will pass any time soon.
The apparently gloomy outlook is underpinned by the Confederation of Belgian Industry, which estimates that the cost of the attacks to the Belgian economy amounts to a whopping €2.4 billion, or 0.57% of the country’s GDP.
Had the atrocity not occurred, the Belgian economy would have grown by almost 2%, but economic growth is around one third lower as a result of the attacks. Slower growth, it says, has also cost the creation of 9,000 new jobs.
Almost a year down the line, several sectors, says the organisation, are still feeling hit, including aviation, retail and companies that organise events. There was also a 10 percent drop in visitor numbers at various summer music festivals while the Kinepolis multiplex cinema chain has been attracting fewer visitors.
While there is no doubt that Brussels has suffered greatly, it is not all doom and gloom and things are now happily starting to recover in at least one sector: tourism.
On New Year’s Eve, hotels in Brussels attracted more visitors with an occupancy level of 85% (a 20% increase on 2015), and the 16th edition of the traditional Christmas market Winterpret (Winter Wonders) was seen as a “huge success" (attracting 2.5m visitors, 65 percent of them Belgian). Brussels Minister-President Rudi Vervoort and the Region now want to "continue this trend further," resulting in the launch of a major €4m international campaign promoting the city.
But the Dean and Political Science Professor at Vesalius College, Dr. Joachim Koops, confirms that with military still present and on show in the capital, the government continues to prioritize security measures and a wide range of raids at short notice.
“While the alert level remains at 3, Belgium, Europe and the entire Western world has to get accustomed to the underlying threat and possibility of terrorist attacks and incidents. It’s the responsibility of Brussels, Belgian and European security services to improve their coordination and cooperation as much as it is the responsibility of every citizen to remain vigilant without slipping into a dangerous state of mind of exaggerated fears.
Measures to fight terrorism
So what can be done to further reduce the threat of another atrocity in Brussels? According to Duhig, the role of civil society in the prevention of radicalisation, which can lead to violent extremism, is “underestimated.”
Duhig believes that outreach to and cooperation with vulnerable communities and individuals is more effectively undertaken by civil society organisation. “Friends and family are more likely to contact authorities if they are concerned about someone they care for. NGOs can support and intervene at an early stage to prevent radicalisation.”
The recent years saw the highest numbers of radical Islamist-inspired terrorist attacks in Europe since the Madrid train bombings in 2004. But Duhig points out that terrorist attacks in the 1980´s killed far more people, though these were not, for the most part, by radical Islamists.
Is Brussels safer now than in the past? “The question is rather whether Brussels is any less or more dangerous in 2017 than any other EU capital city,” he replies. “The extent to which national security agencies in other countries will be willing to share information with their counterparts in Belgium on looming terror attacks and cross-border movements of high risk individuals will help determine that.”
“The degree to which civil society is encouraged and supported by government and institutional partners - including the European Commission in particular, which needs to simplify funding mechanisms, enhance training and strengthen evaluation mechanisms - to undertake prevention work with vulnerable communities and individuals will be a key factor.”
Thomas Renard, a researcher on anti-terrorism at Vesalius College and the Egmont think tank, says that domestically, Belgium is working fast and hard to make it more secure and resilient vis-à-vis terrorism.
“At the European and global levels, Belgian authorities have significantly deepened their cooperation with third countries, notably France, while stepping up their participation to the global coalition against ISIS, as Belgium participates in the military operations in Iraq and Syria.”
He also emphasises that “In 2017, the priority for Belgium will be to continue focusing on the prevention of radicalization and broader societal polarization. Indeed, whereas Belgium has successfully prevented the departure of its youngsters to jihadi battle fields, the phenomenon of radicalization remains a major concern.”
“In terms of threat, the security services will have to focus on the potential return of a number of foreign fighters from Syria and Iraq to Europe, since ISIS is losing ground in the region, as well as on violent home-based radicalized individuals inspired by ISIS propaganda.”
According to Stroobants, structural counter-terrorism measures have to be taken. Besides providing enough police and intelligence capabilities to avert any attack, he identifies additional measures. The public’s sense of fear should be minimized and adequate, and swift support to the victims should be put in place.
Last but not the least, the root causes of violent extremism and radicalisation must be tackled. No-one should need to use extreme violence to be “heard”. “This implies measures both in our own society that should become more inclusive, equal and equitable, and abroad through diplomacy and development efforts.”
By Martin Banks