Explosives more powerful than Paris attacks?

Cities in Western Europe face a heightened risk of coordinated terror attacks from Islamic State (IS) following Tuesday’s attacks against Brussels’ airport and metro station, according to an analysis by global intelligence firm IHS.

The assessment follows word that IS has claimed responsibility for the blasts that killed over 30 people. Amaq, a news agency affiliated with the terror group,  said Tuesday that suicide bombers strapped with explosive belts had staged both attacks.

IHS Country Risk analyst Lora Chakarova and Matthew Henman, the head of IHS Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Center, noted the coordinated assaults demonstrate an ability to carry out simultaneous attacks on multiple targets, potentially in several cities at once.

Security troops at main Brussels train station
Security troops at main Brussels train station

Careful terror coordination

The analysts add that the timing of the attacks was carefully orchestrated. The first two explosions occurred at the departures area of Brussels’ main airport, Zaventem at about 08:00 local time, March 22. Approximately 80 minutes after the Zaventem bombing, another explosion occurred at Maalbeek metro station, located near European Union (EU) institutions and Belgian government buildings.

Photographs likewise show that significant property damage was inflicted by the explosions at Zaventem and Maalbeek, suggesting that the explosives were more powerful than those used during the prior Nov. 13 Paris attacks, with the train carriage at Maalbeek appearing entirely destroyed.

Retaliation for arrest?

The Brussels attacks come four days after the arrest of Salah Abdeslam, identified by French authorities as the last surviving participant in the Paris attacks, in Brussels’ district of Molenbeek.

Salah Abdeslam
Salah Abdeslam

However, IHS says it’s unclear yet whether the Brussels attacks were precipitated by the arrest of Abdeslam. A December 2015 guidance released by the Islamic State to militant cells operating in the West prescribes that cells in the same city should preserve their operational independence in order to mitigate the risk of information leaks. IHS believes that several Islamist militant cells currently operate in Brussels, and therefore Abdeslam’s interrogation, while potentially useful with regard to information on the wider Islamic State modus operandi in Europe, might not necessarily provide critical insight into the Brussels attacks.

IHS says that since coordinated attacks like the ones in Brussels would likely take longer than four days to prepare, it may be that an existing plot was accelerated in response to Abdesalam’s detention.

Tensions between the government and Muslim communities are expected to escalate in the wake of the attacks. IHS says Belgian authorities will likely launch numerous counter-terrorism raids in coming weeks, locking down specific areas of Brussels for traffic and businesses, with raids further creating wedges between the state and minority communities.

Western European leaders and law enforcement agencies are said to be especially concerned about the possibility of simultaneous attacks on multiple cities. Following the Brussels attacks, IHS notes that both the French and the UK governments quickly reinforced security at the Paris and London main airports and stated that more police officers will be deployed across the capitals, specifically at borders and transport hubs.

Raids no guarantee

Brussels airport victims
Brussels airport victims

In coming weeks, IHS says Belgian authorities will operate under a heightened state of alert and are likely to launch numerous counter-terrorism raids, resembling those in November and December 2015.

These are likely to include locking down specific areas of Brussels (potentially Molenbeek, Schaerbeek and Botanique) for traffic, public services and businesses, potentially lasting for days. Such raids are also expected in other major Western European cities, such as Paris and London, where increased security measures at airports and transport hubs will be enforced.

As in the Paris attacks, security forces are expected to focus on uncovering and degrading the terror network that supported and facilitated these attacks. However, the IHS analysts note that given the intent by the Islamic State to use multiple separate cells, success in capturing the members of a cell responsible for the Brussels or Paris attacks won’t ensure the prevention of further attacks.

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