In a sense, it was inevitable, but that didn't lessen the shock or grief.
ISIS struck again yesterday, killing at least 31 people in twin suicide attacks against the airport and a subway station in Brussels. Belgian intelligence and security forces had been on heightened alert for weeks, after one of the terrorists responsible for November's deadly attacks in Paris fled to their country. Anti-terror units finally caught up with Salah Abdeslam on 18 March, in a raid on a Muslim neighborhood where he had been hiding. Residents reportedly threw rocks at police after Abdeslam was captured.
The arrest raised new fears about imminent attacks by jihadists, and on Tuesday, those fears came true. Believing that Abdeslam might give authorities information about planned operations, at least one terror cell put their plans in motion, with deadly effect. At least two suicide bombers detonated their vests just outside the American Airlines counter at the Brussels' Zaventum Airport; the third in a crowded subway car about an hour later. The carnage was, predictably, horrific. Along with those who died, more than 250 people were injured, including several Americans.
In the aftermath, the Belgian capital has been placed on a Level Four lockdown, with residents being told to remain indoors and limit cell phone traffic to text messages--among other restrictions. Meanwhile, authorities focused their initial search on the suspected ISIS bomb maker, Najim Laachraoui, who prepared the vests for the Brussels attacks and last fall's deadly rampage in Paris. However, sources tell Fox News that Laachraoui was apparently one of the suicide bombers who targeted the airport.
Almost immediately, there were questions about intelligence warnings that went unheeded. Haaretz reports that the Belgian security services, along with other western intelligence agencies, had "advance and precise" information about the planned strike in Brussels:
The security services knew, with a high degree of certainty, that attacks were planned in the very near future for the airport and, apparently, for the subway as well.
Despite the advance warning, the intelligence and security preparedness in Brussels, where most of the European Union agencies are located, was limited in its scope and insufficient for the severity and immediacy of the alert.
Sources (read: the Mossad) also tell Haaretz that the attack was planned at ISIS Headquarters in Raqqa, Syria, indicating that the group's senior leaders remain active, despite periodic western airstrikes.
And unfortunately, the trail of missed--or ignored--intelligence clues began months ago. Turkey claims it warned Belgium about one of the suicide bombers last summer (emphasis ours).
Ibrahim El-Bakraoui, a petty criminal born and raised in Brussels and
suspected of being the bomber who blew himself up at Zaventem Airport,
killing at least 11, was nabbed crossing into Turkey from Syria nine
months ago, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said. Turkish
officials said they told their counterparts in Brussels of his likely
involvement with ISIS, which has claimed credit for Tuesday’s attacks.
To be sure, some of these revelations represent a certain degree of posterior-covering by various intelligence services, particularly Turkey's MIT, which plays both sides of the game in Syria. But it's equally clear that various western agencies were asleep at the switch, overwhelmed, hamstrung by political correctness, or some combination of all three.
How did the Belgians arrive at this sorry state of affairs? A little history, from the estimable John Schindler, writing at the New York Observer:
None of this is new. A quarter century ago, back in the early 1990s,
Belgium developed robust clandestine networks of jihadists, heavily of
North African origin, dedicated to supporting the Armed Islamic Group
(GIA, an early joiner with Osama Bin Laden’s global movement) and its
bloody war back in Algeria. Belgian intelligence paid less attention to
GIA networks than later seemed warranted because the jihadists were
plotting terrorism elsewhere—seldom if ever in Belgium—and Belgian spies
knew that GIA “ratlines” in their country were heavily watched, and at
times manipulated by Algerian intelligence, which had no interest in blowing up Belgium.
Thus when Belgian-based terrorists caused mayhem in France in the mid-1990s, including a wave of bombings in Paris,
Brussels helped French intelligence catch the bad guys but undertook no
serious dismantling of jihadist networks in Belgium. Over time this
problem metastasized, and with the rise of ISIS in recent years,
including hundreds of Belgian citizens going to the Middle East to wage
holy war for the Islamic State, the threat has grown exponentially.
The game changer was last November’s horrific attacks in Paris,
the bloodiest events on French soil since the Second World War. These
turned out to have a significant Belgian footprint, with several of the
attackers linked to Molenbeek, a notorious Brussels suburb that’s
half-Muslim and known to authorities as a hotbed of radicalism. For the
police, Molenbeek has been a no-go area of sorts for years, leaving
jihadists free rein to raise funds, collect arms, and plot mayhem
Belgian intelligence has long been short of funds and personnel and
above all any political will to do anything substantive about the
country’s vast jihadist problem. Belgium’s chronically dysfunctional
politics have played a toxic role, as has the general Western European
tendency to avert eyes and hope for the best regarding the growing
radicalism of whole swathes of young people in the Muslim ghettos that
exist in most of their cities now.
Obviously, these problems are not unique to Belgium. Decades of lax immigration laws; minimal assimilation and cradle-to-grave welfare benefits have created fertile breeding grounds for jihad in western Europe. At the same time, the burden of expensive social programs meant reduced funding for the military and intelligence services.
Now, those same organizations are desperately playing catch-up, amid the realization that additional jihadis are on the way--to reinforce those already in place--and carry out more attacks. The Associated Press reported late today that ISIS has trained up to 400 fighters to execute waves of deadly strikes across the continent. With European spy agencies and security organizations operating far behind the power curve, the odds of another major strike (over the near term) are decidedly high. And there's not much they can do about it, except arrest everyone with a link to suspected cells and hope they get lucky.
In the wake of the massacre in Brussels, some American counter-intel types were shaking their heads about the "poor tradecraft" exhibited by their Belgian counterparts. That little exercise in self-congratulations is not only delusional, it's hypocritical to boot. To be fair, there are hundreds of dedicated CIA and FBI agents and analysts who have prevented countless attacks since 9-11. But those successes must be squared against failures at places like Fort Hood, Chattanooga and most recently in San Bernardino. In each case, clues were missed and innocent Americans paid with their lives.
Then again, it's hard for the security and intel agencies to get the resources they need when the commander-in-chief spends barely a minute addressing the Brussels attack, and adjourns to a baseball game with Raul Castro.
Our real reckoning with ISIS is yet to come.
ADDENDUM: The Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Representative Devin Nunes of California, believes the Brussels attack was targeted "to some degree" at Americans. There is an element of truth in that claim, given the large number of U.S. tourists who pass through the country each year, and the hundreds of military personnel assigned to NATO Headquarters, located 30 miles from Brussels.