26 October 2016
While the terrorist attacks in Belgium caused fewer casualties than recent similar attacks in France, they might have more far-reaching implications for the West. Photo: Bloomberg
While the terrorist attacks in Belgium caused fewer casualties than recent similar attacks in France, they might have more far-reaching implications for the West. Photo: Bloomberg

Why the attacks on Belgium are so worrisome

This week’s terrorist attacks on Belgium killed at least 35 people and injured more than a hundred.

The casualties this time might be less severe than those caused by similar attacks on Paris several months ago, but in terms of the degree of horror, the attacks on Belgium could even be higher, and they could have more far-reaching implications for the West.

Here’s why:

1. The attacks took place only four days after the massive crackdown on local terrorist rings by the Belgian authorities, which would inevitably give the public the impression that the terrorist attacks were a retaliation for the arrests.

Even if the timing of the attacks was purely coincidental, those who perpetrated them would surely use it as propaganda to generate fear among the public.

If the attacks had really been intended as a retaliation, then western law enforcement agencies would have even more to worry about, since it demonstrated how capable and efficient the terrorists have become, as they were able to mount a massive counterattack on a major European city in just four days.

2. The fact that the terrorist leader who was eventually arrested by Belgian police last week had been hiding in Molenbeek-Saint-Jean near Brussels for months with the help of local accomplices and sympathizers suggests that “homegrown” terrorists are now everywhere in Europe and that they have already established a vast underground network of their own.

It would be immensely difficult for European authorities to uproot such a network.

3. Homegrown terrorists across Europe could prove even more fearsome than Islamic State members based in Syria, because these people were born and raised in European cities and are therefore more familiar with the security vulnerabilities of local facilities, such as airports, subway stations and even nuclear power plants.

The fact that the Belgian police evacuated non-essential workers from two nuclear power plants near Brussels shortly after the attacks indicates that the Belgian authorities have noticed the potential threat posed by terrorists to these vulnerable facilities.

It would be the worst nightmare for western counterterrorist agencies if Islamic terrorists were really starting to set their sights on nuclear facilities on their soil.

4. Unlike France, Belgium is a tiny and peaceful European country with no overseas strategic interests.

The recent attacks on Brussels illustrate that terrorists are now launching indiscriminate attacks against all major western cities rather than just targeting the capitals of major European powers.

Their choice of targets no longer has anything to do with the foreign policy or military strength of the victim countries. Simply put, any western city could become the next target.

Like I said after the terrorist attacks in Paris, these attacks will only fuel the xenophobic sentiment among the western public and give rise to extreme-right political parties in Europe.

As a result, European governments will be forced to review their policies toward receiving refugees or even re-establish their border checkpoints under public pressure.

Such a rise of xenophobia in the West and its rejection of foreign refugees will in turn be used by IS as propaganda to promote anti-western sentiment.

This vicious circle is likely to remain until, one day, a major western power like the United States is attacked, and then retaliates by sending ground troops to Syria to take on IS.

However, any massive military operation against IS, like the invasion of Iraq in 2003, might turn out to be a double-edged sword, because while, on one hand, it might deal a serious blow to IS, on the other, it might risk splitting western society over whether it is worth getting involved in another prolonged war in the Middle East.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on March 23.

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Associate professor and director of Global Studies Programme, Faculty of Social Science, at the Chinese University of Hong Kong; Lead Writer (Global) at the Hong Kong Economic Journal

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