Brussels Attacks Show Zero Risk Impossible as Terror Spreads

  • Bombings show challenge of keeping tabs on suspected militants
  • Resources needed for surveillance `are overwhelming'

Belgian Manhunt Continues in Brussels Terror Attacks

Even on high alert, authorities can’t be expected to prevent all the terror attacks being hatched in their midst, Belgium’s interior minister said a day after bombings killed 31 people in Brussels.

“We are fighting against professionals,” the minister, Jan Jambon, told RTL radio on Wednesday. “Sometimes we have situations like yesterday. Zero risk doesn’t exist.”

His warning reflects the limitations of police and intelligence capabilities in Belgium and beyond, long-standing failures to penetrate groups of Islamic extremists, and the unbalanced arithmetic inherent to modern counter-terrorism. While the police have to win every time, attackers need only to win once -- and can do terrible damage if they pull it off.

Islamic State claimed responsibility for the atrocities, which involved two suicide bombs in the check-in hall of Brussels airport and another detonation at a busy subway station. More than 230 were injured in the explosions, which were Belgium’s worst-ever terrorist attack.

Keeping tabs on suspected militants who haven’t actually committed crimes isn’t easy anywhere; French security experts have said it takes 10 to 20 agents to maintain 24-hour surveillance of an individual. The challenge is particularly acute in Belgium, which combines a relatively large number of citizens believed to be sympathetic to Islamic State with a small, fragmented security apparatus.

Strong Roots

The events in Brussels are the result of “a very big problem that has quite strong roots in this country,” said Raffaelo Pantucci, director of international security studies at London’s Royal United Services Institute. Even with suspected extremists under tight watch, “you don’t know that you’re not just looking at a partial piece of the picture,” he said.

The bombings came just four days after Belgian police arrested Saleh Abdeslam, a Brussels-born Frenchman who prosecutors believe helped perpetrate the November massacres in Paris. Abdeslam was hiding out in Molenbeek, a heavily Muslim neighborhood of Brussels that’s seen repeated raids by armed police since the Paris attacks and is believed to be a hub for Islamic State activity in Europe.

While some of attackers in France were known to police for having ties to Islamist groups, officials there at the time said they simply don’t have the resources to maintain full-time surveillance of the hundreds of people on their watchlist. That means making hard choices about prioritizing suspects, some of which are inevitably wrong.

Days Off

“People underestimate the amount of resources it takes to surveil someone,” said Scott Stewart, the vice president of tactical analysis at security firm Stratfor and a former U.S. State Department special agent. Even with a small number of suspects, “you have shifts, you have days off. You need technicians, translators,” he said. “It just becomes overwhelming.”

Belgium’s main intelligence agency, State Security, has just 500 to 600 staff, according to local press reports. Belgian politicians have also lamented the fragmentation of policing, with six police departments responsible for law and order in Brussels, a city of just over a million residents. Coordination efforts are also hindered by long-standing, nationwide tension between French- and Flemish-speaking communities.

The country’s problem with Islamic extremism is almost inverse to Belgium’s intelligence resources. With an estimated 440 citizens fighting with militant organizations in Syria and Iraq, the nation of about 11 million is the largest per-capita European source of jihadists, according to a 2015 study by the International Centre for the Study of Radicalization.

Jewish Museum

In January, police killed two suspected terrorists and arrested a third in Verviers, near Liege, preventing what might have been a “major attack.” In 2013 a gunman who had spent time in Syria killed four at the Brussels Jewish Museum, and last year passengers overpowered a man wielding a Kalashnikov rifle on a high-speed train that had just departed the capital.

To be sure, Tuesday’s attacks took advantage of vulnerabilities common to every modern society, not just Belgium, and particularly in the European Union, whose cornerstone is freedom of movement around the continent. European citizens “are going to live with this terrorist threat for a long time,” and need to be “realistic” about the likelihood of further attacks, French prime minister Manuel Valls said on Europe 1 radio.

The airport explosions occurred well outside the security cordons for departing passengers, and like most cities Brussels has no security checks at subway entrances. It’s not easy to see how either type of location could be better protected, security experts say. External checkpoints at airports, for example, would just present a new target, while establishing checks in subway stations is impractical in busy cities.

That means there’s no substitute for better intelligence work, and long-term efforts to combat radicalization in Muslim communities, according to Stewart at Stratfor.

“If you have a motivated, dedicated person who wants to kill someone it’s quite easy,” he said. “There are soft targets everywhere.”

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.