Initial thoughts on Brussels

As I have stated many times I am not a fan of speculation in the absence of facts.  All we know so far about the heinous act of terrorism this morning in Brussels is that three bombs went off and that at least two of the attacks were suicide.  Belgian police and security forces are busy investigating and we need to allow them the time to do so.

What I want to focus on here is some of the commentary  I have read and heard so far.  There are things that are unhelpful, inaccurate, and some, in my honest opinion, that don’t help us understand what happened and what we need to do about terrorism.  So, in no order of significance, here we go…

  1. Can we please stop calling suicide attackers “cowards”?  Call them barbaric, call them inhuman, call them monsters, but how on earth can a person who willingly commits suicide for a cause he believes in, no matter how misguided that cause is, be a coward?   I will accept coward for those that send mortars  into markets or lay IEDs  on roads, but not someone who gives his life – that takes courage.
  2. Can we also stop talking about this attack (or Paris or Istanbul or San Bernardino or…) as a “watershed” or a “game changer”?  Just what is different about Brussels?  We’ve seen train bombings before.  We’ve seen bombs with nails and screws before.  We’ve seen IS claim attacks before.  So, what exactly is new?  I will grant that attacking an airport departure area is somewhat unique, but that too has been done before (a shooting at an El Al ticket counter in Los Angeles in 2002).  I, and many others, have long wondered why we haven’t see more of these in the past.  But that aside, this is more of the same.  This is the new normal as I wrote earlier this week.
  3. Can we stop giving IS airtime with their “claims”?  Sure, there was an IS flag found and there is little doubt the attacks were IS-inspired.  But allowing IS to preen and brag and rub our faces in the blood of the victims is not helping,  people. Let them tweet and FaceBook and Whatsapp to their extremist friends to their hearts’ content.   As for the rest of us civilised humans, we should ignore the man behind the explosive curtain.
  4. Can we please stop screaming “intelligence failure” and “incompetence” at the Belgian services?  There are lessons to be learned here and sources have told me that there are serious issues regarding intelligence sharing and other matters, but these officials are doing the best they can.  You have to understand, however, that the Belgian police and intelligence are dealing with a problem of a magnitude that most of us cannot comprehend.  There are likely thousands of violent radicals in Belgium and no agency can watch them all.  If there was true incompetence that should emerge.   But let’s allow the facts to come out.

In the end there are a few takeaways from today:

a) terrorist attacks happen.  We do out best to stop them but some extremists get through.  At no point is what happened in Brussels an existential threat to Brussels or Belgium or the EU or the free world or the known universe.  Keep things in perspective.  I am not minimising what happened, I am just saying we need to react in a measured way.

b) speaking of measured responses, can we not go all Donald Trumpian on this and call for immigration bans and water boarding?  If we are ever to get ahead of this violent curve we need to act intelligently and wisely.  By all means identify, investigate and neutralise the violent extremists but let’s not create the conditions for more violence to breed.

c) we really need to include communities in the search for solutions.  I don’t know much about Brussels or Mollenbeek but I do know that there are some pretty serious problems that need addressing there, and I am just talking about radicalisation.  The first to see violent extremism and the best placed to help deal with it are locals.  Involve them.

My heart goes out to the victims and their families.  We need to band together to stop terrorism.  We have our work cut out for us.



By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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