The terrorist attack at the Brussels central station on June 20, 2017 will put an end to the discussions in the Belgian media about the reasonability of the presence of armed militaries in popular places and around strategic sites. Many politicians expressed the opinion that the presence of the military is extremely ineffective and is only a way to “appease the population.” The last night’s events proved the opposite.
In fact, it was thanks to the presence of the military at the central railway station in Brussels that a huge terrorist attack was prevented. But it should be noted that this presence is only part of the national security measures adopted by the Belgian authorities after the terrorist attacks in Paris on November 13, 2015, and in Brussels on March 22, 2016.
In particular, they include placements of external surveillance cameras around strategically important facilities, intensification of police raids, and a number of changes in the Belgian legislation. The proposed and discussed measures include the increase of pre-trial detention for terror suspects from 24 to 72 hours, increase of staff and funding for internal intelligence and police services, tight control over the financing sources of mosques and much more.
Anyway, the situation has changed dramatically: security measures in Belgium today are fundamentally different from those that operated a year or two years ago.
The terrorist was neutralized thanks to a happy coincidence of circumstances and the presence of servicemen at the central station in Brussels. However, if the explosive device functioned at full capacity, a large number of victims would be unavoidable.
The device consisted of a backpack filled with small gas bottles and nails. As a rule, in order to blow up a gas cylinder an extremely high temperature or a long burning period is necessary. That is why almost all recent terrorist attempts using gas cylinders were unsuccessful.
On June 26, 2015, a supporter of ISIS (banned in the Russian Federation by court order) pulled up a car loaded with gas cylinders to the entrance of a plant producing industrial gases in the town of Saint-Quentin-Fallavier in France. The attacker was arrested.
On September 4, 2016, the French police discovered six gas cylinders and a charred wick soaked in diesel fuel in a car left near the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. Four days later, the police detained three ISIS supporters in the Paris suburbs, who were planning to carry out an attack by blowing up a car with gas cylinders in the centre of Paris.
In most cases, terrorist attacks using gas cylinders were carried out in Europe by ISIS supporters who did not travel to Syria and did not have direct contacts with the leaders of the organization, but simply reacted to the terrorist organization’s online propaganda.
The terrorist attacks in Brussels, Paris and the prevented terrorist attacks in Germany (Dusseldorf) suggested the use of explosives such as TATP (triacetone triperoxide), extremely powerful but unstable high explosive, which can be obtained from commercially available components of household chemicals. The ISIS terrorists who were sent to Europe from Syria to carry out large-scale terrorist attacks were trained to work with this type of explosive.
Radical Islamists in Brussels
In Belgium, the number of citizens who are supporters of radical Islam is estimated in tens of thousands. Several thousand of them are under supervision of the Belgian internal intelligence and security authorities on suspicion of links to terrorist groups. Over the past five years, at least 617 people from Belgium joined ISIS and Al-Qaeda (banned in the Russian Federation by court order) in Syria and Iraq.
These data allow us to say that the number of potential terrorists in Belgium is very high at the moment. Belgium is the EU country with the highest per capita number of jihadists who left for Iraq and Syria: over 60 per 1 million of population.
The number of people suspected of having relations with terrorists is unprecedented today, and no matter how they try, security forces are unable to track them all. It takes four to eight agents to carry out round-the-clock monitoring of one suspect.
Unlike Germany, where most of the terrorist attacks were carried out by newly arrived migrants, in Belgium all acts of terrorism (at least in last five years) were committed either by Belgian citizens or EU residents, who were radicalized in local mosques, prisons or within their “ethnic diaspora.” As a rule, the terrorists were children or grandchildren of first and second wave immigrants, those people who came from Morocco and Algeria in 1960-1970 and participated in the construction of the metro and transport facilities in Belgium. Many of them settled in the municipality of Molenbeek-Saint-Jean, which became notorious after the Paris terrorist attacks.
The last terrorist attack at the railway station was carried out by a Moroccan citizen Oussama Zariouh, who permanently lived in Belgium (Molenbeek district in Brussels). Earlier, he was involved in drug trafficking, but was not suspected of having links with terrorists and was not under surveillance by the security forces.
Out of focus
The attack at the Brussels Central Station occurred one and a half year after the increased security measures were introduced in Belgium and the fight against the terrorist threat was intensified.
The June 20 events showed that these measures are unable to prevent a new terrorist act and a large number of potential terrorists are out of surveillance focus by security services.
If the explosive device in the terrorist’s backpack blew up, a large number of victims could not be avoided despite the presence of the military at the railway station platform.