Three Explosions, with two likely caused by suicide bombers, rocked the Brussels’ Zaventem airport and Maelbeek metro station on 22 March, prompting a lockdown of the Belgian capital and heightened security across Europe. More than 30 people have been reported dead and scores injured, some of whom are critical. The explosion on a three-coach metro train, as it was leaving Maelbeek station for Schumanstation, left more than 20 dead.
Belgian authorities bolstered security after the attacks, raising alert levels to maximum, shutting down all Brussels metro stations, evacuating the city’s airport, canceling trains in and out of Brussels and ordering evacuations of all but essential staff at two nuclear power plants. Belgium called for three days of national mourning.
The Islamic State (IS) group said it was behind the attacks in a statement issued on the IS-linked Amaq agency.
Limits of Security
Belgium was on high alert for a possible revenge attack following the capture of 26-year-old Salah Abdeslam in a flat in Brussels on 18 March according to Belgium’s Interior Minister, Jan Jambon. Abdeslam, a French citizen born and raised in Brussels, is the only suspected participant of the November 13, Paris attacks to be captured alive and had been cooperating with police investigators. Jambonthough could not confirm that attacks were being planned by Abdeslam, but was prescient when he said on 21 March a day before the terror attacks, that “after 18 months of dealing with this terrorist issue, I have learned that when the terrorists and weapons are in the same place, we are close to an attack”.
Yet the high security appears to have only preponed the planned attack rather than preventing it, raising questions on the capacity and efficacy of physical security measures alone in preventing terror attacks unless backed up by some good intelligence.
With three runways in the shape of a “Z”, the Zaventem airport connects Brussels to 226 destinations around the world and handled nearly 23.5 million passengers in 2015. The Eurostar trains that connect Brussels to London and the Thalys trains that link the city to other European capitals were shut down. Brussels hosts the EU parliament and the NATO headquarters in addition to the country’s own parliament. A security lockdown of the capital is a logistical nightmare and comes with a high economic cost to say the least.
Immigrants and Border Controls
US presidential hopeful Donald Trump’s reaction on Fox News was “I would close up our borders … We are lax and we are foolish”. The spokesman, for the rightwing UK Independence Party was more explicit when he said: “This horrific act of terrorism shows that Schengen free movement and lax border controls are a threat to our security”. Their sentiments draw attention to two critical issues; immigrants and border controls. Like the Paris attacks, the Brussels one too puts the spotlight on radicalization of second and third generation immigrants in Europe, issues surrounding their integration within the local communities and the short time span of their radicalization from a disenchanted citizen to a jihadist.
It also brings focus on returning jihadis and asylum seekers. The danger lies in the fact that the asylum seekers who are the more visible (and distressed) of the lot, are more likely to face the community ire creating another source of disaffection and aggravation in Europe where the issue is already polarizing the political and social environment.
Appropriate border controls are important not just from the point of view of controlling access but for generating requisite digital records (including CCTV) for progressing investigations after such incidents as the Paris attacks and the arrest of Abdeslam has indicated.
While there have been earlier reports of lack of coordination between Belgian law enforcement and intelligence agencies, it’s the minor loopholes in security procedures in a country under heightened state of alert since the Paris attacks, that is disconcerting. Lack of baggage screening, permitting entry into the departure area without being in possession of a valid ticket and ID proof and having no access checks while driving to the airport are some of the issues that have come to the fore.
India got a sense of the situation when emergency measures had to be initiated for five Jet Airways flights landing in the country after a hoax call was received regarding their safety. Jet Airways uses the Brussels airport as its European hub.
However, the emergency preparedness in India would require a higher degree of coordination both at airports and transportation nodes. Passengers at the Maelbeek metro stations had to walk to the next metro station through the tunnel to be evacuated; a daunting prospect in Indian conditions.
India would also note, after the Paris attacks and arrest of Abdeslam, the importance of crime scene management, forensics, bomb analysis and national crime and citizen databases in pursuing terrorists and preventing other planned strikes. It was meticulous forensics that kept the law enforcement agencies on Abdeslam’s heels, even though the final tip-off came when he switched on his cellphone. Contrast this with our efforts at Gurdaspur and Pathankot.
To give out the first alert on the attack and subsequent updates and advisory, the Brussels Airport (@BrusselsAirport) took to twitter. “There have been 2 explosions at the airport. Building is being evacuated. Don’t come to the airport area”, was the first tweet. It indicates a medium of communications that air travellers in India must be tuned into. Leaders’ world over, as it now become increasingly common, sent out their messages of condolences and support on the social media.
The Belgian authorities released a photo of three men seen at the airport who they said were suspects and sought the public’s help in identifying one of them who is believed to have left the airport after placing the explosives. However, the fact that he is the one out of the three who has his face partially covered with his cap, probably calls for simple procedures such as asking all passengers to look at the CCTV camera while entering the airport departure area.
The Central Industrial Security Force (CISF) which not only provides security at Indian airports, covers 149 stations of the Delhi Metro that sees a footfall of approximately 2.6 million passengers a day. The security layer is doubled during important events. Higher number of casualties at the Maelbeek metro station is a grim reminder that terrorists prioritise their targets on basis of body-bags.
The Brussels terror strike is an opportunity for us to appreciate the challenges faced by the first responders and security providers and get our own house in order.
About the author:
*Monish Gulati is an independent defence analyst based in New Delhi. Views expressed by the Author are personal.
This article was published at CLAWS and reprinted with permission.
 Captured Paris attack suspect “worth weight in gold” to police-lawyer, Reuters, March 21, 2016.
 Andrew Higgins. ‘Terrorism Response Puts Belgium in a Harsh Light’, NYT, November 24, 2015.
 DNA of Paris attacks ‘accomplice’ found on explosives as probe widens, Yahoo News, March 21, 2016.
 Alissa J. Rubin, ‘The Arrest of Salah Abdeslam, a Paris Suspect, Ends Manhunt, Not Questions’, NYT, March 21, 2016. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/22/world/europe/arrest-salah-abdeslam-paris-suspect.html?rref=collection%2Fnewseventcollection%2Fattacks-in-paris