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Tom Clonan: 'Islamic State will consider today’s attacks a great success'

Columnist Tom Clonan takes an in-depth look at the aftermath following today’s attacks in Brussels and what it means for security in Europe.

Tom Clonan Security specialist and columnist, TheJournal.ie

TODAY’S ATTACKS IN Brussels follow a pattern of similar attacks in France and Belgium over the last year or so.

Kalashnikov assault rifles were used in the Charlie Hebdo shootings last January. In November, the Paris attackers used similar Kalashnikov rifles along with high-explosive suicide vests in coordinated assaults on ‘soft’ targets.

The Paris attacks were carefully planned and choreographed. Assaults on the Bataclan Theatre, cafes, bars and the National Football Stadium followed a staggered timetable.

The attacks were mounted in intervals in order to cause maximum confusion and to degrade and erode the capacity of first responders – police and ambulance services – to react in a coherent manner.

Stepping up their capability

The Paris attacks also demonstrated a step change in the level of capability on the part of the perpetrators. The individual attacks were unhurried and involved the deliberate and coordinated exploitation of firepower.

The intention was to generate a mass casualty incident among innocent civilians in an unprotected, unsecured and congregated setting.

In other words, ‘soft targets’ were selected and over 130 people lost their lives.

Belgium Airport

It’s been reported that today’s Brussels attacks also involved the use of Kalashnikov assault rifles and high explosive suicide vests. The operations were almost certainly carried out by members of the same terrorist network involved in the cross-border Paris attacks.

The timing of today’s attacks are significant for a number of reasons.

Capture of Salah Abdeslam 

The attacks took place almost immediately in the aftermath of the capture of Salah Abdeslam on Friday.

Belgium Paris Attack An unidentified man believed to be connected to key suspect in the November 2015 Paris attacks Salah Abdeslam, is detained by police during a raid in the Molenbeek neighborhood of Brussels last Friday. Source: AP/Press Association Images

It was widely reported that Salah Abdeslam intended to ‘cooperate’ with Belgian and French authorities. His lawyer, Sven Mary went so far as to state, ‘‘Salah Abdeslam is of prime importance for this investigation. I would even say he is worth his weight in gold. He is collaborating. He is communicating. He is not maintaining his right to remain silent”.

Abdeslam’s arrest and such revelations may well have triggered the Brussels attacks.  Other members of his terrorist network, fearful of being unmasked, most likely carried out today’s attacks in haste.

Whilst it is clear that there was an element of pre-planning and pre-reconnaissance of today’s targets, the duration and nature of the attacks differ from Paris.

The attack sites 

The attack sites – Zaventem International Airport and at the Maelbeek Metro Station deep in the heart of the EU administration zone in downtown Brussels – are deeply symbolic and high profile targets.

Belgium Attacks Forensic staff leave the metro station Maelbeek in Brussels. Source: AP/Press Association Images

At a period of heightened security in Brussels, it is deeply troubling that the disrupted terror cell managed to gain access to these target areas with high explosives suicide vests and high velocity assault weapons.

The attacks were well timed. The suicide bomber struck at Zaventem’s busiest time for arrivals and departure. The Zaventem attacker also exploited the weakest link in the airport’s security systems and detonated the explosive device in the crowded departure area just metres away from the heavily policed security gates.

The Maelbeek Metro attack was also staggered and took place during rush hour in the busy European Union Headquarters and European Commission district.

Unlike the Paris attacks however, the Brussels incidents were not sustained shooting incidents. Whilst casualties were high and will continue to rise – the terrorists will be disappointed in terms of their failure to achieve mass casualties.

Belgium Attacks A man looks at flowers and messages outside the stock exchange in Brussels . Source: AP/Press Association Images

A pressing concern over the next days and weeks will be the actions and behavior of the surviving or remaining members of Salah Abdeslam’s terrorist network. It is reported that an unexploded suicide belt has been found at the scene of one of the locations.

Risk of further attacks 

It is unlikely therefore that all members of the network are accounted for. Based on our experience of the actions of radicalised extremists in the aftermath of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings and the Charlie Hebdo attacks – there is a critical risk for further gun and bomb attacks in Belgium. The potential for another mass casualty incident or hostage situation remains critically high.

Irish citizens were caught up in today’s attacks. Irish army officers were among those targeted by Islamist extremists in Monday’s attack on the European Union Training Mission to Mali, in Bamako.

Irish citizens were injured in Saturday’s suicide bomb attack in Istanbul on Saturday. It is essential that Irish citizens travelling abroad be made fully aware of the risks posed to them by the evolving pattern of terrorist attacks now evident within the EU and beyond.

Belgium Attacks Police secure the metro station Maelbeek in Brussels. Source: AP/Press Association Images

Islamic State will consider today’s attacks a great success. IS have shown themselves to be a fast learning organisation with increasing terrorist capacity and resilience. Their current operational trajectory points towards an ongoing campaign of terrorist ‘spectaculars’ in Europe over the coming months and years.

Above all, IS have shown that a tendency to exploit weakness and gaps in intelligence and security in order to generate mass casualty incidents. Irish citizens cannot ignore this reality. Recent tragic experience – from Tunisia to Istanbul and Brussels – tells us that we are no longer immune from such attacks.

Belgium Attacks

Irish authorities’ insufficient response  

The Irish government also need to take stock of the rapidly evolving security situation in Europe. The repeated  assertion by the authorities here that ‘there is no specific evidence’ of an attack here is an insufficient response to the emerging threat.

At a minimum, there is a requirement for major investment in the capacity of our first responders – gardaí, paramedics and accident and emergency units – to cope with an unexpected mass casualty incident here.

At present, Irish people are the least well informed EU citizens with regard to the threats posed by the current radicalised terrorist phenomenon.

In our public discourse, the reflex response of the Irish government spokespersons – particularly in the Departments of Foreign Affairs, Justice and the Office of the Taoiseach, is to ‘close down’ the discussion on terrorism and radicalisation.

This ‘nothing to see here’ attitude is both paternalistic and irresponsible.

Read: ‘We need to assess the threat to the 1916 commemorations’>

Tom Clonan: Video means it’s official – Ireland is a target for Islamic State>

About the author:

Tom Clonan  / Security specialist and columnist, TheJournal.ie

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