Updated March 27, 2016, 3:30pm EST.
Among the dense clouds of speculation from mainstream journalists and the many supposed national security experts whose expertise lies in repeating nothing (“I have been briefed, but I cannot say anything further as it would compromise sensitive intelligence sources during an ongoing investigation”) one is forced to make one’s own sense of events. There are questions that are generally not being asked about the Brussels attacks of Tuesday, March 22, 2016, and how the Belgian national security state functions by making various compromises that ultimately result in a strange form of complicity with the attackers.
We supposedly know that on Friday, March 18, 2016, Belgian security arrested Salah Abdeslam, after nearly four months spent searching for this man who was allegedly involved in planning the Paris attacks of last November 13. That is four months, in a relatively small nation, at the heart of European political power. If correct, it would be reasonable to assume that Belgian security services and investigators would have experienced a level of frustration and anxiety over their failure to quickly capture this suspect, and with the looming possibility of more attacks to come.
However, we are also told that Belgian authorities were aware that Abdeslam was part of a network—but they did not arrest that network on Saturday, they just arrested this one man. Why then would the authorities proceed to arrest one high-profile figure in a network, while highly publicizing it? Would not arresting this one man alert others in the network to take action of some sort?
The reason why it took Belgian security four months to find one man, and rushed to arrest this one figure, may be indirectly explained by a candid admission offered by a Belgian counterterrorism official to the media:
“We just don’t have the people to watch anything else and, frankly, we don’t have the infrastructure to properly investigate or monitor hundreds of individuals suspected of terror links, as well as pursue the hundreds of open files and investigations we have. It’s literally an impossible situation and, honestly, it’s very grave.”
Arresting one agent, without knowing the full extent and depth of his network, can produce one of several consequences:
- The arrest alerts others to go underground;
- The arrest motivates others to begin fleeing, and in doing so, become more visible; or,
- The arrest can impel the network to act immediately, with what resources remain, to engage in a quick and easy yet high profile attack, which may also leave traces of the network.
In other words, it seems as if the Belgian authorities needed to provoke movement and action, as a tool for filling in the many gaps in their knowledge. The authorities were obviously desperate, and it turns out that the attackers were as well.
What is not likely is that Zaventem airport and Maelbeek metro were the intended first choice of targets to attack. An allegedly large network—too large apparently for the Belgian authorities to grapple with—with resources, time, and specialists needing to be organized and put in place, is not likely to have been assembled just to mount what are relatively cheap and easy attacks on unguarded soft targets.
It is also not likely that if the intended targets had always been just the airport check-in area and a train station, that an “enforcer” would be needed to accompany the bombers. In a much publicized photo of the attackers, I too was struck by the third man at the far right, but not for most of the reasons advanced by the media. He struck me as hanging back a little, as if to watch over the other two, both dressed in similar fashion. He has a bulky coat, which might be concealing a firearm. The only reason I can imagine that dedicated attackers would need to be so closely monitored, is if there was suspicion within the organization that the men might hesitate to attack something they had not agreed to attack, forcing them to walk with bombs on their luggage carts past numerous baby strollers. This then may also be a testament to a change of plans.
Instead, what were the likely intended targets? To answer this question, one needs to remember what is housed in Brussels. The following major international organizations are headquartered in Brussels, or have a base there:
- NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization)
- The European Commission
- The European Parliament
- The Council of the European Union
- WCO (The World Customs Organisation)
- Eurocontrol (air-traffic safety)
- Benelux General Secretariat
- The United Nations (office)
- UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization—office)
- UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees—office)
- WHO (World Health Organisation—office)
- International Labour Organization’s Office for the European Union and the Benelux Countries
- UNICEF (United Nations Children’s Fund—office)
- UNDP (United Nations Development Programme—office)
- World Bank (office)
- African Union (office)
- IOM (International Organization for Migration—office)
- AER (Assembly of the European Regions—office)
It is not preposterous to assume that high-value targets would have been the NATO headquarters, and the European Commission, European Parliament, and Council of the EU.
The attacks on Tuesday thus strike me as a desperate move, based on a hasty calculation that Belgian security was bearing down on the network, and that the captive Abdeslam might talk. They instead opted for soft targets, still centrally located and public enough to gain considerable attention and produce shock.
The Belgian authorities also likely suspected that NATO and the EU were the targets of first priority. However, they had an incomplete picture of the terrorist network, by their own admission. What to do then, wait for them to attack NATO and the EU? Or, move now, arrest a key figure, and provoke the terrorist network to move quickly, possibly expending themselves on a soft target that could not reasonably be guarded by state security to any considerable degree.
If so, it means that the Belgian authorities, in a no-win situation, made a desperate calculation to act with haste and to possibly sacrifice expendable civilians in order to safeguard NATO and EU structures. The cold-blooded calculus was then a feature of both parties to this drama.
What the now “tight-lipped” Belgian authorities, suddenly camera shy, have yet to answer is: why did they proceed to arrest Abdeslam, when they did not know who the other members of his network were, and when it could provoke such attacks as we saw a mere three days after Abdeslam was arrested?
The implications of this are that the notion of “saving civilians” is not necessarily a top priority of “counter-terrorism” apparatuses, and that the primary aim of state protection are the central institutions of state power rather than people in general. Second, notions of “deflection” and “misdirection” are given a new meaning by what was presented above. It also suggests that while attacks may not be entirely preventable, they can be conditioned and somewhat steered even before they happen.
Thanks to Alexa O’Brien for pointing out this alternative explanation, from: “Journalists in line of fire over reporting of terror attacks“. In that article we see the authorities blaming certain news media for rushing to report new information on the possible whereabouts of Abdeslam, who was then still in hiding. The article might attenuate some of the points made above, or it might not: after all, while police arriving at Abdeslam’s location found a news van already in place, this does not explain why the police themselves were there and why they were already clearly intent on acting at that point. For example, “Police moving in to arrest Abdeslam found the outside broadcast van of a Flemish-language TV channel parked only metres from his hideout”–this indicates that the police had already decided to move, before discovering the news van in place. A similar point could be made about this: “Hours before Abdeslam was arrested Friday after four months on the run, the French weekly news magazine L’Obs revealed that his fingerprints had been found in an apartment near Brussels”. Clearly then the media did not report on a location in Brussels itself, and it’s not evident from this article who told the media about the fingerprints, nor is it indicated that this report motivated the police to act prematurely. However, it is still important to be open to various possibilities, especially in situations where state authorities manage the news and resist questioning.
- A senior aide to the Belgian premier stated: “Our first thought was that … this [arrest of Abdeslam] will set off a ferocious response“–so the authorities did anticipate an attack, and yet proceeded to make the arrest even as they lacked the intelligence and resources to prevent the network from attacking — “security forces had orders to increase vigilance but lacked intelligence to justify a citywide lockdown”.
- ” ‘It was a race against time,’ said Vincent Gilles, head of Belgium’s main police trade union SLFP. But with accomplices fearful investigators were closing in, and the intelligence service understaffed…it was a race the authorities could not win”.
- “What happened was almost inevitable,” said Gilles.
- “Fearful Abdeslam might talk or otherwise give them away, the bombers moved up the date”.
- “An intelligence service of about 700 staff for a country of 11 million struggled to cope, as did a police force that is about 20 percent below full strength”.
- “Over the three and half days following that arrest, while a wounded Abdeslam first cooperated and then refused to answer questions, the government considered locking down Brussels just as it had done after the Paris November attacks. But the government decided against it because they had no clear clues that an attack was in the offing, said the government official”–note how the latter part contradicts the statements above.
- “So it was with a note of resignation that Belgium’s leaders reacted to the worst bloodshed in their country since World War Two: Michel declared simply: ‘What we feared, has happened’. “
What the article, and the respondents to Reuters, do not address is why the authorities proceeded to make such a public arrest, given their known limitations to pin down a network, and given that they knew an attack would be an imminent response. Few if any articles to date even mention the possibility that NATO and the European Parliament might have been the intended targets, with softer and easier ones chosen only after Abdeslam’s arrest began to unravel their work. This article only mentions in passing that Belgium is “a country that is proud to host both the European Union and NATO”.
I will therefore repeat my primary contention that “counter-terrorism” can and does involve some rather cold-blooded calculations to preserve institutions of power, first and foremost, while civilian lives are expendable. In the latter regard, there is a degree of complicity with “terrorist” groups, an overlap in the values held by states and their non-state adversaries. Nonetheless, it is under the pretext of “keeping civilians safe” that the security apparatuses are funded and their power expanded.