In recent months and years we have got used to witnessing attacks on Brussels, the city symbolizing the centre of the European Union that national leaders in government and opposition love to criticize for everything that goes wrong or is unpopular on the European continent. Today, though, 22 March 2016, it was not a metaphoric but a coordinated literal attack on the city of Brussels that dominated the headlines, took the lives of tens of innocent people, and glued the eyes of the rest of us onto our TV screens.
If we believe the announcement made by the so-called Islamic State, “Daesh” or ISIS, it was this radical Islamic group, which controls parts of Iraq and Syria, which orchestrated the attacks. It is not clear yet whether they were planned to take place at this time or were expedited because of the recent arrest in Brussels of Salah Abdeslam, presumed mastermind of the 13 November 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris. The question of timing is not just about semantics but would indicate whether this was primarily a domestic or an internationally inspired attack.
The targets chosen, though, are very telling by themselves. Brussels airport is a major hub of European aviation and the base of Eurocontrol (and very close to NATO HQ, it is worth mentioning). Maelbeek metro station is the one serving both the European Parliament and the European Council and Commission. In this light, attributing the attacks to disgruntled youth of Arab origin within the Belgian society does not look like a plausible explanation. The ISIS recruiters may have used the disgruntlement and alienation of the Muslim Belgian youth to recruit, train and prepare them for their irrational “ultimate sacrifice”. But the executors were obviously pawns in a much bigger game that involves grand geostrategic aspirations and commensurate planning.
It is disheartening to compare the above with the apparent lack of planning, coordination and shared vision that the European authorities, media and people are exhibiting. The attacks on Brussels are widely interpreted as attacks on Belgium rather than Europe. The main responsibility for the response falls on the Belgian authorities, assisted by the French, rather than a pan-European “FBI” or even a coordination centre at EU level. The mourning is primarily for Belgium as such and not for Europe, even if the victims may prove to be widely European and international, because of the nature of both attack locations.
Interesting to see that for ISIS Europe exists and is worth attacking. And also interesting to observe that for the Europeans, foreign policy and defence remain the sovereign prerogative of member states, complacently clinging onto the remaining bits of real power and jealously keeping them in their respective “rooms”, while the whole building where they reside is on fire. It is the games, interests and interventions of individual states in the Middle East and beyond that helped nurture terrorism to the point that it got out of control, but it is the nascent collective entity that is facing the consequences.
Which proves the point that extremists feed on each other and are happy to split the gains, squeezing out the voices of reason and conciliation. In other words, Euroskeptics and Islamophobes are the darlings of Islamists and Theocrats, both sides paving the way for the other to come into power in the opposite camp, so that the difference between them is clear and the people have to choose whether they are “with us or against us”, for the ultimate battle. There are no nuances in this war of civilisations that both extremes are working for, dreaming of old glories, from the Caliphate to the Crusades. Responsible citizens of Europe and the world should resist this plot and should maintain the middle ground, refusing any legitimacy to the extremes and coming up with long-term solutions to the real grievances that exist all around and feed them.