IN MANY ways, the attacks in Brussels had a sick air of inevitability. Ever since the Paris attacks on November 13, the Belgian capital has been seen as the likely next target.
What happened on Tuesday clearly shows the limits of Belgium’s much-criticised security and surveillance systems. It is also a reminder of how difficult stopping such incidents can be.
As always, lessons will be learned and systems tightened. The fact that an apparent suicide bomber was able to penetrate the crowded airport terminal points to one obvious loophole that could have been tightened — many airports in vulnerable parts of the world, such as India, have security screening points at the entrance to such buildings. They cause delays but provide a measure of security.
In reality, however, all that additional security does is shift the problem elsewhere. Nobody really expects such measures to be possible on crowded mass transit systems.
Had the attack targeted several points on the Metro system rather than the Metro and the airport, the death toll might still have been similar — a bomb in a crowded place is still a bomb in a crowded place.
The simple truth is Belgium has been expecting an attack for months. Troops have been deployed on streets and other nations have dramatically ramped up support to the Belgian security services. Such attention was clearly starting to pay off — the arrest of one of the suspects from Paris last week is proof of that. But it simply wasn’t enough.
Better-coordinated security systems — particularly cross-border co-operation — are not just necessary but vital. Even if they were to be improved substantially, however, some attacks like this will get through.
What will happen now is relatively predictable, at least when it comes to the security response — we saw it after Paris last year as well as in Madrid in 2004 after the attacks on its transport system killed 192 people.
Security services will identify the attackers and begin to run down their wider networks. In Paris and Madrid, that led to police assaults several days later on the hideouts of the plotters — raids themselves that often end with yet another suicide explosion.
Such militant actions, however, are essentially political. And the political consequences of what happened in Brussels today are only just beginning.
Countries react differently to attacks like this. The Madrid attacks in 2004 toppled the government, ending Spanish involvement in the Iraq war. The July 7, 2005, attacks in London had a negligible impact on the mainstream political system — although a very real effect on community cohesion.
The attacks in Belgium take place against a much wider backdrop — not just the Paris attacks but the wider European migrant crisis. Even if all of the plotters in this case turn out to be homegrown, the attacks will still be seen in the wider European context of a continent already struggling to adapt to hundreds of thousands of new arrivals.
The real risk now is that hardliners on both sides end up playing off each other to further destabilise the situation. Already, hardline anti-migrant parties like Alternative for Deutschland — fresh from dramatic gains in local German elections this month — say the Brussels attacks demonstrate a clear and urgent need to halt new arrivals.
Muslim populations in Europe, both established and new, will inevitably find themselves under more suspicion and scrutiny, not to mention facing potential retaliatory violence.
Getting to the core of what motivates the attackers is notoriously difficult. Some countries in Europe are clearly more vulnerable than others — both to physical attacks and potentially destabilising political fallout that could have much broader implications.
An attack in Belgium — always one of Europe’s least politically functional countries with a record of operating for sometimes years at a time without a government — was perhaps sufficiently predictable that the local political consequences will be limited. Similarly, after Paris, another attack in France might also have relatively little impact on its domestic politics beyond providing another minor boost to the right-wing National Front.
A major attack in Germany, however, could prove rather more politically damaging to Chancellor Angela Merkel, essentially the linchpin of the European project. Germany has not seen a major militant attack since the 1980s, but is struggling to deal with the arrival of more than 1m migrants in the space of a year. Whatever the reality of the situation, that crisis and any militant attack would become immediately conflated in the public mind.
Those implications may already be crossing the Atlantic. It took little time for Republican frontrunner Donald Trump to use events in Brussels to once again push his suggestions for hugely ramped up restrictions on Muslim travel into the US. Pollsters say incidents like Brussels in Europe almost certainly improve his chances of winning in November.
Handling crises like the Middle East and the now indissolubly intertwined political woes of Europe was already hard enough. The point of attacks like Brussels is to make that even harder.