ON THE streets of Brussels they had been dreading the next attack. But when Islamic State (IS) eventually struck, on March 22nd at Zaventem airport and then, just over an hour later, in the city’s metro system, anticipation did nothing to diminish the shock or the suffering. As we went to press, the death toll was over 30; at least 200 were injured, some of them critically (see article). Belgium’s prime minister, Charles Michel, called the bombings “blind, violent and cowardly”.
Over the coming days Europe will once again pass through terrorism’s stages of grief: despair over innocent lives cut short; anger towards the young men and women (some of them citizens) who kill in the name of jihad; questions about the grip of the police and intelligence services; and eventually, as news bulletins and headlines subside, a weary resignation.
Yet even now, immediately after the attack, two lessons are clear. One is that, despite being at the top of the most-wanted list for years, IS remains resourceful enough to mount synchronised bombings in the heart of Europe. The other, which flows from this, is that big cities in Europe and America will have to get used to a long campaign of terror in which all are targets.
Havens and have nots.
IS’s resilience will cause alarm and rightly so. The Brussels bombers struck days after police arrested Salah Abdeslam, a chief suspect in last year’s attacks in Paris in which 130 people died. For four months he had found haven with sympathetic friends and neighbours just a few streets away from his home in Molenbeek, a Brussels suburb. Plainly, some people are prepared to endorse Mr Abdeslam’s methods even if they are not yet ready to dip their own hands in their compatriots’ blood.
As well as enjoying some support, IS commands expertise and recruits. Across six European countries 18 jihadists are known to be under arrest, suspected of a hand in the Paris attacks. Even so, IS could muster enough jihadists to mount a complex, co-ordinated operation under the nose of the authorities in Brussels, possibly at short notice. French officials have concluded that IS has learnt how to make bombs from commonplace chemicals such as hair dye and nail-polish remover. They have yet to find any of the group’s bombmakers and struggle to penetrate the jihadists’ communications.
The threat is not about to diminish. Some would-be terrorists will be recruited locally. Thousands of men and women have left Europe for IS’s self-styled caliphate in Syria and Iraq, where they have received training and indoctrination. Libya is seething. Al-Qaeda and IS are competing to prove their jihadist credentials. The near-certainty is of more attacks in more cities.
How should governments respond? The starting point is an awareness that terrorists set out to provoke an overreaction. They exult when politicians like Donald Trump vow to exclude Muslims from the United States; when leaders from eastern Europe say they will accept migrants from Syria only if they are Christian; or when Marine Le Pen, leader of the French National Front, compares Muslims praying in the street to the Nazi occupation. Such intolerance helps turn discontents into sympathisers and radicals into bombers. Equally, IS rejoices when Western countries dwell on scores of people dying at home rather than the hundreds of Muslims killed by bombs in Beirut and Turkey or the millions mouldering in refugee camps and suffering in Syria’s civil war. Policy should aim to split radicals off, not force the mainstream into their arms.
Another priority—which goes some way to preventing an overreaction—is to reassure ordinary people that the government is working to protect them. Some politicians think that popular fears of perishing in a terrorist attack are irrational. Barack Obama, in a recent interview in the Atlantic, explained how he likes to remind his staff that more Americans die from falling over in the bath. But terrorism is different from accidental death or even from random murder. The public react to terrorism so strongly because they sense that their government cannot fulfil its basic duty to keep them safe from such enemies. The fear that terrorism provokes is not just a statistical delusion but also an inkling that people who know no limits are organising a conspiracy against the state.
Asked to offer reassurance without straying into overreaction, governments struggle. France, which has suffered grievously in two attacks, is still living under a state of emergency in which the police can search houses without a warrant and place suspects under house arrest. President François Hollande and his prime minister still frequently declare that France is at war. Strong words and the suspension of normal rights were understandable just after the attacks in November. They may now be counterproductive (see article).
Grains of sand
The best protection would be peace in the Middle East—a distant dream, alas. The coalition has made progress against IS in its caliphate, which is shrinking and losing people. But eradicating it needs Iraqi troops (as yet unprepared) and ground forces in Syria (as yet non-existent). Meanwhile, IS’s ability to command and inspire terrorists will persist and, anyway, the West has its own, self-radicalised jihadists to deal with.
And so the police and intelligence services need to operate in every sphere at home, from surveillance to deradicalisation. One thing that can be fixed quickly is underinvestment. Antiquated IT systems hinder collaboration. The security services also need to penetrate jihadist networks and their supporters, using human recruits and enhanced signal intelligence. Inter-agency co-operation has improved, but privacy-protection still hinders the sharing of data. Jihadists work across borders more easily than the security services do. (Brexit could well be a further obstacle.) Better policing and prisons can help stop petty criminals being radicalised. The economic and cultural isolation of districts like Molenbeek must end. It is a long, hard toil and much of it must go on unobserved—except when it fails.
Many will dread the struggle ahead and regret the never-ending contest between security and liberty. But as long as jihadists threaten the West, there is no escaping the need to act. Welcome to the new normal.