Tuesday’s bombings in Brussels are the worst terrorist attacks experienced by the country and are likely to have far-reaching socio-economic impacts on top of the ongoing security operations.
On Tuesday March 22nd, Brussels was hit by the worst terrorist attacks in its recent history. Just before 08.00 two suicide bombers exploded in the capital’s international airport departure hall and an hour later a blast ripped open a subway wagon in the Maelbeek station in the European Quarter.
The Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attacks in a propaganda message issued via its usual communication channel. Preliminary reports show that the explosions left more than 30 dead and at least 270 wounded.
The three militants involved in the bombings have been identified and police forces are actively looking for one of them. who reportedly fled the scene of the attack. Laachraoui is believed to have been implicated in the Paris attacks in November 2015 and was in close contact with Salah Abdeslam.
The attacks in Brussels left the European capital temporarily cut from the rest of the world. The international airport was closed immediately after the bombings while Eurostar and Thalys services were also suspended.
Public transportation services were also heavily disrupted throughout the city hindering the movement of thousands of local residents. On Wednesday March 23rd, the majority of services were reset and the city slowly went back to life. However, the management of the Brussels airport decided to keep it closed throughout March 24th in a bid to restructure the damaged facility.
The deadly bombings in Brussels underscore the current structural threat posed by Islamic State cells operating in the country.
These attacks occurred four days after the capture of Salah Abdeslam during a period of time in which Belgian police forces were putting an enhanced pressure on radical Islamist networks in the country. These bombings highlight the presence of deep-rooted and well organised Islamist groups capable of preparing complex attacks. They also come as a stern reminder of the resilience of the command-and-control structure of Islamic State-linked cells operating in Brussels.
The identity of the two suicide bombers that hit Brussels airport also highlights the growing link between local organised criminal networks and radical Islamists. Police forces were already familiar with the El Barkaoui brothers as both of them had been arrested for violent crimes involving the usage of assault rifles in Brussels. The district of Molenbeek has traditionally been a hub for the smuggling of narcotics in northern Europe. However, in recent years there has been a worrying trend of collusion between local criminal gangs and radical Islamist ideologues leading to a facilitated access to weapons and safe havens for Sunni extremist militants.
The Organisation for Threat Analysis Coordination (OCAM) raised the terrorism alert for the Brussels region to the highest level. Police forces are engaged in large-scale operations in the capital to capture all those suspected of having taken part in Tuesday’s attacks. These raids are expected to continue in Brussels and in Belgium in the short term and may lead to additional localised disruptions. Should police and intelligence forces be warned of a potential plan to conduct follow-up attack, it is likely that authorities will impose temporary movement restrictions to safeguard the local population.
The terrorist threat is expected to remain elevated in Brussels. The structural link between criminal and Islamist groups requires a long term policy that addresses its socio-economic and security aspects. The capital of Europe will continue to face a risk of attacks that may entail complex plots as well as lone-wolf assaults. While, periodic police operations such as the one in Verviers in January 2015 or in Brussels in November and December 2015 could be described as successful, they are unlikely to radically uproot networks strongly established in some of the capital’s poorest districts.
This spreading of fear and panic also raises concerns over the impact of the attacks on Belgium’s economy. The overall climate of uncertainty does not bode well for the household expenditures and local private companies’ trust in the future. Early projections based on the effect of the Paris November attacks show that Belgium may lose up to 0.1 percent of its GDP because of Tuesday’s bombings and their long term effects on Brussels socio-economic life. In addition, the major damage done to the city’s infrastructure will require substantial investments to repair the damaged facilities. These budgetary sacrifices will have to be made in a climate in which the national economic growth will be hindered by the spillovers of a slow-down in consumption in Brussels.