On Tuesday, the Belgian city of Brussels endured a devastating terrorist attack. Bomb blasts at an airport and in the city's metro system killed more than 30 people and injured hundreds more. The Islamic militant group ISIS quickly claimed responsibility for the grisly attacks, and now the European country (and its allies around the world) is facing some hard choices about what to do next, and some hard looks at what went wrong. For example: How did the Brussels bombers evade security at Brussels' key airport well enough to pull off such a devastating, tightly coordinated plot?
In particular, the question of how security at Zaventem Airport failed to stop a pair of suicide bombings has loomed large. But when you consider the location, it makes a bit more sense how the bombers weren't uncovered ― they detonated well before the time they would've been subjected to the usual pre-flight security checkpoint. The security at the airport has been criticized for failing to flag the bombers as suspicious, however, by virtue of their reportedly donning single left-handed gloves, which could've been used to conceal detonators.
One of the bombs reportedly went off in the front of the terminal near the ticket counters, while another went off near the terminal's entrance. There was also a third bomb discovered at the airport, but it was disposed of by Belgian authorities without going off, according to the AP.
As Dan de Luce and Elias Groll detailed for Foreign Policy on Tuesday, the Belgian government had been keenly aware that there could be a terrorist attack coming, due to worrying intelligence gathered throughout the prior year, including some concerning a coordinated plot in the style of the Paris attacks last November.
But, spread thin while trying to gather up suspected militants just one week after accused Paris attacker Salah Abdeslam was apprehended in a Brussels neighborhood, the state's security forces were unable to thwart Tuesday's attacks. As Mitch Prothero detailed for BuzzFeed, Belgian officials are well aware of the struggles they're facing ― here's what one told them the week before the attack took place:
We just don’t have the people to watch anything else and, frankly, we don’t have the infrastructure to properly investigate or monitor hundreds of individuals suspected of terror links, as well as pursue the hundreds of open files and investigations we have. It’s literally an impossible situation and, honestly, it’s very grave.
According to a report for The Daily Beast by Michael Weiss, Nancy A. Youssef, and Nadette de Visser on Tuesday, Belgian security forces have also been harshly criticized in U.S. counterterrorism circles, with one senior official anonymously calling their efforts "really shitty tradecraft."
Even with the EU in general, there’s an infiltration of jihadists that’s been happening for two decades. And now they’re just starting to work on this. When we have to contact these people or send our guys over to talk to them, we’re essentially talking with people who are — I’m just going to put it bluntly — children. They are not pro-active, they don’t know what’s going on. They’re in such denial. It’s such a frightening thing to admit their country is being taken over.
As it stands now, the Belgian population is thought to include the highest per capita number of foreign-born ISIS fighters out of any European nation, with more than 500 believed to have traveled into Iraq and Syria to enter into combat. All of these are factors combined made Belgium a potentially vulnerable target, and sure enough, now March 22 will now be remembered as one of the darkest days in the country's history.