Another tragedy, another headline: Paris, Ankara, Istanbul, and now Brussels. Belgium authorities knew that an attack was possible. The stakes were raised even higher after the capture a few days earlier of Salah Abdel Salaam, an Islamic State operative accused of being part of the Paris Massacre of Friday 13th November 2015. The death total was 129.
Yet, when on March 22, 2016, terrorists struck Zaventem International Airport in Brussels, transit point for 23 million people a year, and a train station, resulting in over 31 deaths, several missing, and 270 injured, it seemed to come as a surprise. What was not a surprise is that the so-called Islamic State claimed credit.
Yes, there were condemnations from world leaders, expressions of sympathy to the people of Belgium, declarations of support as well as action against terrorism. Before all else, we need to ask: how do we make sense of the senseless?
First, it is important to face the situation with healthy realism and honesty. Put aside political correctness and the fear that you ‘might offend’ someone, and let’s call the situation for what it is. As Tarek Fateh of the Toronto Sun says, ‘Deploring jihadist attacks without naming who is responsible just doesn't cut it anymore.’
First, what happened is really an act of war. True, you don’t have uniformed soldiers, facing each other on the battlefront, equally armed and determined to take or defend territory. But it is still a war.
Nature of War
Consider the some other aspects of war today:
1. High-tech: you can attack an enemy without ever-seeing him.
2. Asymmetrical: The parties are not evenly matched, one is smaller than the other, like David and Goliath. In this case, it is Belgium and the EU vs. the Islamic State.
3. Intra-Muslim: From Nigeria in the West to Pakistan in the East, there is a low-level world war among Muslims, between radicals and mainstream, Sunni vs Shia, modernists vs. feudalists. The players may vary, be it Nigeria and Boko Haram, Somalia/Kenya and al Shabaab, Yemen and Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, Afghanistan and the Taliban,yet this multi-faceted war for the soul of Islam has wounded and killed many, mostly Muslims themselves. Today, the war in Syrian has morphed: no longer is it a civil war between pro-government, pro-Assad forces and Syrian rebels. Today, it is a regional proxy war between the Sunnis (Qatar, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia) versus the Shia (al Assad, Iran, and Hizballah).
4. Trans-Muslim war: Here the radical, militant Islamists are also targeting the West; examples include September 11th in New York and Washington (2001); Madrid bombings (2004); London bombings (2005), and so on.
Brussels is more than the capital of Belgium, and a place of great chocolate: it houses the headquarters of the European Union. It is the hub of the vision of a ‘peaceful, secular, democratic united Europe.’ That’s why the French President Francois Hollande said ‘terrorists struck Brussels but it was Europe that was targeted - and all the world that is concerned.’ Let’s face it: as Tarek Fateh said earlier, you cannot win a war until you are first ready to name your enemy!
The Brussels attack was both an act of war and an act of terrorism. Terrorism is defined as using criminal, violent means in order to bring political change. Terrorism may not be an existential threat to a nation state, but it can cause much damage, especially if the terrorists have weapons of mass destruction.
It is very common to condemn terrorism, but also to make exceptions, as if there are ‘good terrorists’ and ‘bad terrorists.’ Often we hear the phrase, ‘I condemn this act of terror, but ….’ Until we are unequivocal that all terrorism is evil, such double-minded thinking will only make the problem worse.
What can be done? For starters, remember that terrorists try to exploit loopholes in security. Plug the loopholes and the chances of an attack are greatly diminished. Belgium authorities exhibited a shocking lapse of intelligence and security, despite the warnings. Brussels knew that an attack was possible and yet there was no visible, increased police presence, especially at the public transport areas. Anyone could walk into the airport, and that’s exactly what two suicide bombers did laden with explosive vests.
Contrast that with Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport, where you can’t even walk through the front door unless you go through security, including all your luggage x-rayed, and then, after checking in, you go through another security check. At Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport, there are 11 visible security posts or inspection points from the entry to the airport until you board the plane. This explains why there has not been a hijacking or attack at Ben Gurion Airport in 40 years.
Increased intelligence is also a key that can be very effective. Brussels has a Muslim-majority suburb called Molenbeck, where Belgium police do not go. A place of criminal gangs and drugs, Molenbeck is ripe for radicalisation. Jihadis returning from the war in Syria would find it an ideal place to plot attacks on Belgian soil. It is time that Belgium and Europe reclaim their sovereign territory and clean out the nest.
As a long-term world-watcher, this author is of the conviction that the root cause of our social and political problems is spiritual - and so is the answer. Two points on this: prayer can and does make a big difference. The lead-up to the 1991 Gulf War to dislodge Saddam Hussein and the Iraqi army was fraught with peril. We were warned of a war lasting months or years, 10,000s or 100,000s of coalition deaths, and the possibility of Saddam unleashing terrorist attacks in the West. In the end, Kuwait was liberated in only 43 days with less than 300 allied casualties and the terrorists stayed home. No question about it: the concerted prayer intensive at the time gave us such results.
Second point: remember that the goal of terrorism is to cause fear. If you are a prayerful, faithful, Spirit-filled person, you will not capitulate to fear. Make a decision to be fearless and get on with normal life - vigilant and observant - but normal, and you and your nation will not be defeated.