The latest terrorist bombings to hit a major European city have once again exposed the continent’s deep-seated vulnerability to attack from within – and should act as a call for unified global efforts to confront the cancer of terrorism. 

People hold hands in solidarity near a memorial to attack victims outside the stock exchange in Brussels on Tuesday, March 22, 2016. Photo: AP

The outrageous terrorist attacks in Brussels have come as yet another powerful blow to Europe, sinking the continent into new depths of insecurity, fear and uncertainty.

Two blasts occurred in the departure area of the Belgian capital’s Zavantem airport in the morning of March 22, while a third explosion – one hour later – took place in a metro station near the city center. By the time this article was submitted more than 30 people had been reported killed and many more injured.

The attacks took place in what experts have long considered as the most vulnerable terrorist targets – transportation infrastructure. This helps terrorists quickly immobilize the city and paralyze the work of governing institutions – which in case of Brussels means those of all Europe – and sow panic among the population.

The explosions came four days after the capture of Salah Abdeslam – a Belgian-born French national of Moroccan origin who is the last of those allegedly behind the Paris attacks in November of last year that claimed the lives of 130 people and injured 368. During his interrogation Abdeslam is reported to have claimed that there were tens – if not hundreds – of the so-called terrorist “sleeper cells” across Europe awaiting their time to strike. 

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It is not clear if the sleeper cells are now awake and ready to wreck havoc at full strength. However, taking into account that Belgian security forces have been on extremely high alert for the last week – or even longer – and were still unable to prevent such a coordinated massive attack on civilians sends a message that the cells are anything but easy to root out. 

Allegations that suspects responsible for the terrorist acts could be Belarusian nationals make the matters worse to some extent: This means the issue of recruitment is more complicated that could have been presumed.   

Clear signposts to a bleak future

In the following days and weeks, well-known debates with very much well-known arguments on well-known aspects of the problem will unfold. The media will relish the details of the attacks while experts will point to where the authorities went wrong. The latter, in their turn, will respond with another set of the policies that European bureaucracy tends to adopt and that many of the disgruntled in Europe will find erroneous. But the stakes for Europe are incredibly high to simply let the situation go the usual way.

So far there seem to be three obvious outcomes of the bombings – all of which spell little optimism for the future. The first two are very much intertwined and deal with the rise of opposition to migrants and the increase of far-right groups across Europe and subsequent support for them among the population.

Obviously, the system – security and political alike – has exposed its tremendous flaws. The European leaderships – and even more so the bureaucracy – are losing their people’s mandate while the far-right is gaining momentum. What makes this even more troubling is that the support the groups receive is getting the legitimacy – terrifying it may sound – that current European security institutions lack but that is needed to take practical steps to safeguard the continent and the European project itself.

If this doesn’t get fixed appropriately and effectively by the current European leadership, more far-right movements will sweep first local and then federal governments in what will likely be democratic elections that the free world values. As a result, narratives on European weakness will be further empowered by how Brussels fell prey to its own security policies and priorities. In this sense, the recent migrant deal between the EU and Turkey will be even more perceived as outsourcing a large chunk of European security to Turkey – with all the subsequent speculations on how “strong” Ankara can leverage its interests in its relations with “weak” Europe. 

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The third implication will most probably find reflection miles away from Europe and play out in the United States’ presidential election cycle. The attacks will fuel the fire of the rhetoric of Republican candidate Donald Trump, scoring him some easy points and moving him further toward the Republican nomination. The flamboyant billionaire would be remiss to not take advantage of the opportunity to reiterate some of his talking points and once again position himself as a truly defender of “things Western.”

The danger of living in the past 

What makes the situation more deplorable is that even those who are supposed to forecast such threats in order to spur their prevention are very much bogged down in their comfortable analytical paradigm. Major findings by various risk consultancies continue to paint a picture that was characteristic of the world for a large share of the 1990s and 2000s but is no longer accurate.

They insist that the Middle East and North Africa, with a few hotbeds in Russia, Central Asia and the northern part of Latin America, are the world’s most dangerous – from a security standpoint – places.

In fact, however, while Europe is still the world’s most prosperous region and grants its residents a well deserved comfortable life, profound social changes and geopolitical shifts around the continent make it susceptive and thus vulnerable – now more than ever – to challenges that surrounding regions have long been struggling with.

For this matter Europe is not a safe harbor in the turbulent world, if there are such harbors anyway. On the contrary, it is getting increasingly sucked up in the vortex of instability and security dilemmas.

Time to see things as they are

So instead of repeating the self-convincing mantra, it is high time to acknowledge that the situation has evolved dramatically – both in terms of the geography of terrorism and its nature. It is not just ISIS, Boko Haram or other “licensed” terrorist groups that pose a distinct threat to societies and states across the continent, but the very ideology of violence, which feeds on pseudo-religious interpretations and laundered money.

What the Brussels atrocities have exposed once again is that “hibernating terrorism” isn’t just a European problem. This long-promoted battle against this phenomenon is not possible without a cooperation based on a unity of efforts; a cooperation that doesn’t tolerate the ambiguity of state willpowers toward acting together; a cooperation that transcends political divisions and doesn’t cloud common sense in assessing real threats.

This issue cannot and should not be simply laughed off with a cartoon, rallied out for emotional and symbolic support and allocated more state funds without a clear understanding of the realities that have profoundly changed for everyone – for Europe, for the Muslim world, for the Middle East, for Russia, and for the United States. Until this thinking prevails each of these players will continue to be shaken on a regular basis.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.