An Assessment of the terrorist threat in Brussels and Paris

An Assessment of the terrorist threat in Brussels and Paris

The capture of Salah Abdeslam followed a week of anti-terrorist operations that underscored the elevated terrorist threat that continues to negatively impact Paris and Brussels security environments.

Since the deadly attacks of November 13th in Paris, the terrorist threat in the French capital has been closely associated with the security environment in Brussels. Radical Islamist networks with ties to the Islamic State and benefitting from deep-rooted support bases in Belgium have been at the origin of the November attacks as well as several other thwarted plots.

Both countries continue to face a heightened terrorist threat and police forces as well as intelligence agencies are cooperating to prevent further attacks and collect information concerning groups that actively support Middle East-based Sunni extremist militants.

The capture of Salah Abdeslam and the preliminary operations that led to it highlighted once more the complex network of Islamist groups operating in Brussels. The presence of these organisations constitutes in itself a credible threat for the capital.

Brussels: a rear-base of Islamist networks

Several districts of the Belgian capital became notorious in the last months of 2015 as international media focused on Islamist networks located in Molenbeek and Forest. Since the late November lockdown in Brussels additional security alerts were issued underscoring the ongoing exposure of the city to radical Islamist activities.

A warning concerning an elevated threat of attacks on New Year’s Eve 2015 showed how the security environment of Brussels remains highly exposed to potential attacks.

The incident that occurred on March 15th in Brussels’ southern Forest district highlights the continuous risk faced by the capital. A joint French and Belgian police operation led to a shoot-out with heavily armed Islamist militants that resulted in substantial disruptions throughout a large portion of the city.

One of the militants was killed as he was firing his assault rifle toward police forces. The radical Islamist was identified as an Algerian national who fought alongside the Islamic State and planned on carrying out a suicide bombing.

The raid in Forest provided the Belgian security services with critical information concerning Salah Abdeslam, a key suspect in the November 13th attacks. He was found and capture in Brussels’ Molenbeek district on March 18th.

These two operations showed once again the presence of vast networks of Islamist radicals in Brussels as well as their ability to move relatively freely within the capital. It also shows the Islamists’ capacity to obtain a relative degree of support from some segments of the local population. While police and intelligence forces continue to closely monitor the threat the volume of the suspects along with their international contacts creates a challenging situation in which a preventive control of the threat is difficult to obtain.

No major attacks occurred since the shooting at the Jewish Museum in Brussels in May 2014. However, the current elevated terrorist threat is expected to remain an element negatively impacting the local security environment. It also generates an ongoing risk of periodic disruptions to the capital and the country’s economic life as more high-level security operations are likely to be carried out in the short-to medium-term.

France and the “new normal”

The Islamic State-led assaults in Paris opened the country to a “new normal”. Since November 2015, France is under a state of emergency that grants police forces and judicial authorities enhanced rights as part of the ongoing nationwide effort to counter terrorist groups operating in France.

In mid-February 2016, the parliament and the senate voted to extend the state of emergency for an additional three-month period setting the current deadline of the special legal situation to May 26th.

Given the elevated threat that France may face for the upcoming Euro2016 championship and the statements released by the highest state authorities concerning the ever-present risk of terrorist attacks, it is likely that President Francois Hollande may try to make the case to further extend the state of emergency.

This would raise questions concerning the long-term viability of the President’s counter-terrorist plan as it would highlight the need to rely on extraordinary measures. In addition, any further extension of the state of emergency would likely lead to further protests by human right activists and civil society groups who claim that the situation enables security forces to infringe French citizens’ rights.

The detention on Wednesday 16th of four radical Islamists suspected of allegedly preparing to plan attacks in Paris comes as a stern reminder of the threat the capital and the rest of the country are facing. Police forces and internal intelligence services continue to monitor groups who may be planning attacks, conduct recruitment operations or provide support to Middle East-based militants. According to the French Minister of Interior, Bernard Cazeneuve, since the beginning of 2016 police forces detained at least 74 suspects and operations are expected to continue.

In the foreseeable future the country will continue to be exposed to a two-tier terrorist threat. On the one hand Sunni extremist militants will continue to try to conduct complex large-scale and high impact attacks. On the other, there is an underlying risk of lone-wolf assaults involving self-radicalised armed individuals.

Categories: Europe, Security

About Author

Riccardo Dugulin

Riccardo Dugulin is an analyst at Drum Cussac, a global business risk consultancy. He specializes in supporting international organizations and large corporations operating in emerging markets by providing them with critical risk management intelligence. His regions of expertise are the Near East, the Gulf, North Africa and Continental Europe. He previously worked as project manager for a French medical assistance company. He gained field experience in the Middle East having worked for leading think tanks in Dubai and Beirut. Riccardo holds a Master in International Affairs from the Sciences Po – Paris and a Bachelor in Middle Eastern Studies from the same university. Follow him on Twitter @RiccardoDugulin.