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Brussels, Belgium was the scene of multiple explosions on Tuesday, March 22, highlighting the persistent vulnerability of soft targets to simple, effective attacks; the willingness and capability of militants in Western Europe as well as their counterparts in West and Central Africa and Asia to undertake those attacks.
The Brussels attacks came in the wake of the March 18 arrest of Salah Abdeslam, a surviving member of the cell that conducted the November 13 Paris attacks, in the city’s Molenbeek neighbourhood. There have been media reports that Abdeslam was planning additional attacks in Europe, and Belgian officials were seeking two of his associates. It is unknown if those associates were involved in the Brussels attacks or if the attacks were conducted by other operatives. Brussels has been a hotbed of jihadist activity, and there are many Belgian citizens fighting with the Islamic State, Jabhat al-Nusra and other jihadist groups in Syria and other theatres of jihad. In June 2014, a gunman associated with the Islamic State attacked the Jewish Museum in Belgium. Most notable, much of the planning for the November attacks in Paris was also conducted in Belgium, and Belgian officials have braced for additional attacks inside the country.
Authorities in Belgium have confirmed that at least 30 people were killed and more than 200 others were injured in twin blasts at Brussels’ Zaventem airport and Metro station. An initial explosion took place near the American Airlines check-in counter. A second device was reportedly detonated near the Brussels Airlines ticket counter. Shortly thereafter, another explosion was reported at the Maelbeek metro station, close to the heart of Brussels and European Union, EU institutions, including the EU Parliament. As a precaution, all metro and rail services in Brussels were suspended, and flights diverted away from the city. The Belgian government has raised its official security alert level to 4, the highest level.
The Brussels blasts are a striking reminder of the difficulty of preventing attacks against soft targets. Unlike hard targets, which tend to require attackers to use large teams of operatives with elaborate attack plans or large explosive devices to breach defences, soft targets offer militant planners an advantage in that they can frequently be attacked by a single operative or small team, using a simple attack plan. In addition, attacks against transportation-related targets such as metro stations and airports, allow attackers to kill large groups of people and attract significant media attention.
Militants have long targeted the soft area outside airports’ security sectors. For example, a Palestinian militant group known as the Abu Nidal Organization attacked ticket desks in Rome and Vienna in December 1985, and a ticket desk at Los Angeles International Airport was attacked by a gunman in July 2002. In 2011, a bomb attack at Moscow’s Domodedovo International Airport killed 35 people and injured more than 160. The departure and arrival areas outside of airport security usually provide a sizable pool of potential victims who can be attacked without having to sneak weapons past security. This is why travellers should minimise the time they spend on the “soft” side of the airport.
We can therefore draw a similarity between these attacks and those of Boko Haram in Nigeria, which target schools, markets and motor parks.
All said and done, the March 22 attacks were simple but effective, in part because they were directed at people concentrated in restricted spaces – an optimal place to create a high body count with a small suicide device. Targeting the American Airlines ticket counter is quite symbolic, indicating that it was likely an attempt to kill U.S. citizens and European nationals.
But while the authorities at various levels battle to contain the rising wave of terrorism in Europe and other parts of the world, they should not lose sight of the vulnerability of soft targets to terrorist attacks.