What the Brussels Attacks Mean for Global Security
Calls grew louder for stronger international cooperation to fight terrorism and tighten security measures after Tuesday’s attacks in the Belgian capital of Brussels that claimed at least 31 lives and left 270 wounded. However, clarity is yet to emerge on the contours of this next level of global cooperation — including ways to contain the Islamic State (ISIS), which claimed responsibility for the attacks.
In the coordinated attacks between 8 a.m. and 9 a.m. on Tuesday, two explosions occurred in the departure lounge of Zaventem Airport on the outskirts of Brussels, and a third occurred at a city subway station. Airport cameras picked up three suspects. Two of them were brothers — Khalid el-Bakraoui, 27, and Ibrahim el-Bakraoui, 30 – while the third was unidentified, the New York Timesreported, quoting Belgian officials. Ibrahim and the third suspect blew themselves up in the airport explosions, while Khalid carried out a suicide attack at the Maelbeek subway station an hour later, the report noted. Belgian police are on the lookout for another suspect, Najim Laachraoui, who is linked to the terrorist attacks in Paris last November that left 130 dead and 368 injured.
The Brussels attacks are widely seen as an act of revenge by the Islamic State. They came four days after Belgian police arrested Salah Abdeslam, a member of the group of terrorists responsible for the Paris attacks. “What we feared has happened,” Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel said after the attacks.
According to Erwann Michel-Kerjan, executive director of Wharton’s Risk Management and Decision Processes Center, the Brussels attacks are resonating strongly with people because of the nature of the venues that were struck. “[The Paris attack] was at a nightclub, and people think: ‘Well, I don’t go to nightclubs.’ But airports and subway stations — look at your week: How many times do you take a subway or a bus?”
Tightening security across Europe is uppermost in people’s minds. Many leaders and counter-terrorism experts called for Belgium, in particular, to strengthen its security infrastructure because Brussels is “the de facto capital of Europe, but is also fast becoming the capital of Islamic radicalism in Europe,” the New York Times noted in an editorial. “If ISIS starts playing with more dirty bombs and small nuclear devices, that would have a massive impact not just on the level of the threat, but also on business communities,” Michel-Kerjan had warned in aKnowledge@Wharton interview soon after the November attacks in Paris.
The Brussels attacks also compelled U.S. presidential candidates to sharpen their strategies on terrorism. Republican candidate Donald Trump reiterated his call for a ban on Muslims entering the U.S. and legal sanctions to torture terrorism suspects. His party rival, Ted Cruz, called for patrolling of Muslim neighborhoods. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton wanted more tightening of visa systems and screening of passenger lists, but cautioned against using torture to extract information.
“I think that these kinds of events play into the hands of more right-wing candidates in the U.S.,” noted Max Abrahms, a Northeastern University political science professor and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. “It reinforces their message — which I don’t agree with — which is that Muslims categorically are dangerous people and that we need to prevent Muslims from coming into the United States.”
The attacks have reignited the debate over theinflux of migrants into Europe, along with the argument that jihadists slip in under the guise of refugees. Earlier this month, German voters in regional elections rejected Chancellor Angela Merkel’s liberal policy on migrants. Her Christian Democratic Union party lost precious ground to right-wing parties that oppose the influx of migrants.
Michel-Kerjan and Abrahms discussed the impact of the Brussels attacks on Europe, as well as the implications for security, on the Knowledge@Wharton show on Wharton Business Radio on SiriusXM channel 111. (Listen to the podcast at the top of this page.)
An edited transcript of the broadcast will be published shortly.