Three bombings have taken place in Belgium today with two explosions occurring at the airport and another one at Maalbeek metro station. There are 26 people confirmed dead, and reports are still coming in of exactly what happened. Attacks of this kind once again demonstrate the difficulties in securing “soft targets”, particularly where they relate to the transportation system (bearing in mind that transport networks have previously been targeted in Madrid, in 2003, and London, in 2005).
There will be a rush to suggest these attacks have come as retaliation for the arrest of Salah Abdesalam, one of the central figures in the Paris attacks from last November, just four days ago. Yet, it is unlikely a cell would have been able to mobilise so quickly and build several viable devices within this time. Much more worrying is that today’s attack suggests the existence of a broad terrorist network in Belgium – one that was already primed and ready to attack, long before police caught up with Abdesalam.
Abdesalam managed to hide in the Molenbeek district of Brussels for more than four months before authorities finally caught up with him. His capture followed a series of other arrests across Belgium focusing on supporters of Islamic State. Belgium faces a significant terrorist threat. Molenbeek has long been associated with hardliners and radicals. Beyond the Paris attacks, people from the area have also been linked to the gun attack on the Jewish Museum of Belgium in 2014 which killed four, and the failed terrorist attack on a Thalys high-speed train from Amsterdam to Paris last year.
Research conducted by the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (where I work) suggests that, per capita, Belgium has twice as many foreign fighters in Syria as France, and four times as many as Britain. More than 100 are believed to have travelled from Brussels alone.