Brussels Attacks: Why The Belgian Government Did Not Fail Its People

Brussels Belgium Attacks Refugees EU
A man reacts at a street memorial following Tuesday's bomb attacks in Brussels, Belgium, March 23, 2016. Reuters/Francois Lenoir

Belgium has just suffered the deadliest terrorist attack in its history. According to the Global Terrorism Database, attacks in the country led to 40 deaths between 1970 and 2014. Almost as many people died in the explosions at Zaventem international airport and Maelbeck metro station on 22 March 2016 alone.

Already, fingers are being pointed: at the Belgian government and the city of Brussels for their inability to prevent the attack despite warning signs in recent months; at the EU for its open borders and lack of support to Belgian law enforcement; at immigrants and refugees for posing a direct threat to their host country; and at the religion of Islam for fostering violent extremism. U.S. Republican candidate Ted Cruz went as far as calling on law enforcement to "patrol and secure" Muslim neighbourhoods, while advocates of the U.K.'s departure from the EU were quick to use the attack as justification for "Brexit."

Terrorist attacks in the Western world often foster this type of emotional, politicized response, frequently followed by knee-jerk, ineffective and harmful policies. No government in the world, even the most authoritarian and repressive regimes, will ever be able to prevent every single terrorist attack. Terrorism cannot be eradicated, but it can be managed and mitigated through a comprehensive, evidence-based and cooperative policy response.

The Belgian government and the city of Brussels will certainly need to reform and strengthen their counterterrorism apparatus. The country's political challenges have been widely covered, and included a 20-month span with no elected government in 2010-2011. The Brussels-Capital region, home to a modest 1.2 million inhabitants, is divided into 19 different municipalities and six police agencies, which presents evident, deeply-rooted challenges. Blaming Belgium's authorities for the attacks ignores these challenges and their evident lack of resources, while underestimating the terrorist threat it faces.

It remains unclear why Brussels was targeted in the first place, and many questions are being asked, including about the timing and potential connection with the arrest of Saleh Abdeslam. While many may find the temptation irresistible, there is little to gain from speculating before more information becomes available.

Numerous voices across Europe are campaigning for their country to leave the European Union. But at a time when the continent is faced with an increased terrorist threat, economic stagnation, the refugee crisis, and a myriad of other political challenges, the need for European cooperation has rarely been greater. Belgium itself would certainly benefit from more support from European partners on how to address radicalization, returning foreign fighters, firearms trafficking, and other economic and social issues. Peer-to-peer training, funding, intelligence sharing, leveraging Europol's role as focal point for investigations and its new European Counter Terrorism Centre, and closer cooperation of police and judicial authorities across the EU would go a long way in reducing the terrorist threat.

Two further reminders are unfortunately worth insisting upon, given some of the political and media reactions since the explosions. First, blame should be directed at the perpetrators, not the broader communities that they erroneously claim to represent. Second, terrorism aims to foster fear, divisions, and political overreactions. Ignoring those tenets would prove counterproductive, hence the need for responsible and measured media coverage, and an evidence-based, comprehensive, and cooperative policy response.


Benoît Gomis is an independent international security analyst focusing on terrorism and organized crime. He is an Associate Fellow at Chatham House where he recently worked on the Countering Lone Actor Terrorism project, and the author of Counterterrorism: Reassessing the Policy Response (CRC Press 2015).