Over the past decade, Chechen militants have attacked the Russian state via a series of suicide bomb attacks at airports and underground stations. A 2011 bomb attack at the international arrivals section of Domodedovo airport was the most brutal, killing 37 people and injuring 173 more, and followed a suicide bomb attack the previous year.
Most of the world has perhaps forgotten these events and yet yesterday’s terrorist attacks in Brussels are a direct copy, with a few differences.
Early yesterday morning, a Belgian national with an extensive criminal record, Ibrahim el-Bakraoui set off a device near a check-in desk at Brussels’ Zaventem airport (There was another explosion, but a second attacker has not been officially identified). One hour later, his brother Khalid el-Bakraoui exploded himself at Maelbeek station in the European Quarter, location of the European Union and NATO headquarters.
Simultaneous attacks in a city is something relatively new in Europe, as is the use of suicide bombers. The exceptions being the July 2005 attacks in London and the November Paris events where gunmen murdered dozens in restaurants and a concert venue while bombers targeted the Stade de France, where the French President François Hollande was watching a football game with thousands of other spectators.
Few are focussing on the fact that suicide missions were so central to the Brussels attacks, but they strike me as a disturbing development. The London attackers killed themselves when they set off their bombs, but unlike the current militants launching the assaults they were acting alone, motivated by a desire to avenge what they saw to be the persecution of Muslims worldwide. (The same could be said for the Madrid bombers in 2004). They were not acting at the behest of a well-organised and well-funded foreign political group, such as Daesh.
What we are now seeing now is European-born and raised militants bringing the war back home. And the war they are returning resembles the extreme brutality you find in conflicts in the so-called developing world, or failed states, where the murder of civilians, rather than the destruction of military and government targets, is the goal. The violence that scars so many countries in the Middle East and Asia. According to the University of Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism between 1982-2015, Iraq had the world’s highest number of suicide attacks – by a large margin - followed by Afghanistan and Pakistan (then Syria, Nigeria and Sri Lanka).
Interestingly the highest number of attacks were attributed to ‘unknown groups’ and then to the Taliban and Islamic State, or Daesh.
The issue though for Europeans is that unlike a country such as Iraq where there are defined groups fighting each other, linked to religion, or political affiliations, Europeans do not see themselves as occupying a side in a war. They do not even see themselves as combatants or recognise that a war is being waged. Daesh militants might suggest that Europeans are conducting a war – or wars – in the Middle East, via occupation or military operations, but for those murdered in Brussels yesterday or in Paris last November this makes little sense.
The FBI definition of terrorism is ‘the unlawful use of force or violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, or civilian population or any segment thereof in furtherance of political or social objectives’. Recent Daesh operations in Europe have followed a tick the box procedure of how to terrorise a population (target people doing ordinary activities, having a drink or a dinner in a restaurant, or seeing a band; second, attack locations that guarantee freedom of movement; métro stations, airports).
But unlike earlier acts of terrorism, say those conducted by the Palestinians in the 1970s that were usually linked to demands for the release of prisoners held in Israeli jails, the violence unleashed by Daesh in Europe is not accompanied by clear statements setting out political objectives. The European Union ‘Politico’ website included this transcription of an audio recording in French where Daesh, or Islamic State claimed responsibility that said:
Even if European governments wanted to engage with Daesh, how could they? The language and concepts above come from another century, a completely foreign mindset.
If there is no framework for political negotiation it is hard to see where this might end. The violence is beyond generally agreed upon ‘rules of engagement’ in a war-time context. It appears driven by blood-lust. And yet those carrying out the terrorist violence in Paris and Brussels demonstrate an extraordinary level of pre-planning and discipline; during the attack on the Bataclan, for instance the attackers took the mobile phones of the hostages to avoid leaving any traces of their Internet browsing on phones that could be linked back to them.
With each new terrorist attack, those of us living in Europe find ourselves in a non-space. We have no idea why Daesh is attacking us, aside from the vague statements about ‘crusaders’ and yet the violence continues unabated and with each assault only gets worse.