The terrorist attacks in Brussels on March 22nd represent a genuine transnational crisis for the European Union.
The terrorist attacks in Brussels on March 22nd are more than a classic terrorist attack against an EU member state. They represent a genuine transnational crisis for the European Union because they involve cross border-terrorism of a kind not seen before last year's January 7th Charlie Hebdo attack and the November 13th attacks in Paris, because they target the EU as such, and because they could further the broader crisis that has been affecting the EU in view of sovereign debt and refugee crises.
New sense of transnational
Before the Charlie Hebdo attack most terrorist attacks attributed to Al Qaeda or the Islamic State were international mainly in the sense that the central organizations of AQ (in Afghanistan and/or Pakistan) or ISIS (in Syrian and Iraq) or one of their affiliates (e.g. AQ in Yemen or Algeria, ISIS in Libya or Tunisia) provided inspiration, instructions or even some degree of training. The recent attacks in Paris and Brussels are transnational in a new sense, because they involve one or more cells that operate across national boundaries and take advantage of the free movement that the Schengen area offers. It was hardly more difficult for the Paris attackers to come down from Brussels in 2015 than it had been for the 7/7 bombers to take the train from Leeds to London in 2005.
Change of tactics
The importance of the Paris-Brussels link is not only that these attacks were transnational, but that the attacks in the two cities seem to have involved considerably more planning, preparation and logistical complexity than the bombs that struck Madrid in 2004 and London in 2005. Taken together, the attacks suggest a possible change of tactics for in Europe.
The central leadership of AQ and ISIS differ widely in terms of tactics. Whereas AQ preferred to unite Muslims and target the 'far enemy' to drive it off the 'Muslim lands', with a view to a distant Caliphate, ISIS declared the Caliphate and targeted local rivals or enemies with a view to polarizing society and making Iraq (and Syria) ungovernable. The 'Global War on Terror' to some extent managed to degrade AQ's capacity to hit the West, but did little to stop local campaigns across the Middle East. Both AQ and ISIS established franchise-like networks in the region, as well as in Asia and North Africa.
ISIS shifting gears in Europe
For all their differences, the AQ and ISIS affiliates share a key tactic: particularly brutal violence, targeted at civilians rather than representatives of the regime, designed to polarize public opinion. In contrast, most attacks in Europe until 2015 fit the notion of 'leaderless resistance': small groups that carry out one-off attacks without much direct support from the central leadership (a concept originally developed by the American far right). As the Australian counter-insurgency expert David Kilcullen suggested in his recent book Blood Year, the question now is whether ISIS has shifted gear in Europe, to types of attacks that have so far been more familiar in the Middle East and North Africa?
If so, this would still not be an existential threat for the EU or its member states. It would be a bigger security problem. Since the Paris attacks, the European-wide movement of potential terrorists within the Schengen area has increasingly come to light: for terrorist groups the EU is effectively one country in terms of no barriers to movement; whereas for counter-terrorist activities, the EU remains, despite various forms of co-operation and information sharing, largely a collection of nation states with all sorts of barriers to communication and co-operation. In other words, the free movement of criminals is greater than free movement of police, let alone police and intelligence cooperation.
Attacks directly affecting EU institution
The other aspect of the Brussels attack that makes this potential trans-national crisis for the EU is that this is the first attack that directly affects EU institutions. The Charlie Hebdo attacks broadly followed the same pattern that emerged in the context of the controversial cartoons in Scandinavian magazines: in both cases, the attacks focused on important symbols and represented an effort to polarize societies by hitting targets that (as the debates in Denmark and France showed) many were prepared to argue took free speech too far. Similarly, it was almost certainly no coincidence that the underground-bomb detonated at a Metro station between the EU institutions.
Just as the 9/11 attacks prompted policy reforms in the USA (and indeed in the EU) a decade and a half ago, the Brussels attacks are likely to prompt debates about the weaknesses of the EU's counterterrorism policy (and indeed that of Belgium too), as well as policy reforms designed to improve cross-border cooperation between police and intelligence agencies. At the same time, in the aftermath of terrorist attacks, it is always easy to point blame at lack of information-sharing, but any response will need to be translated into actual policing, which, in turn, is likely to provoke controversies regarding resourcing, methods, and safeguards.
However, the attacks present the EU with more than a security threat or a security crisis that can be addressed by better counter-terrorism measures. The terrorist attacks and the resultant insecurity that has been engulfing European societies present the EU with a further existential crisis. Terrorism rarely represents a threat to democratic regimes, but when a system is already in crisis, terrorism can contribute to collapse. Algerian terrorism did not cause the collapse of the French Fourth Republic, but it certainly hastened it. Likewise, for an EU in crisis, these kinds of attacks may prove more consequential than terrorism usually is for liberal democracies.
A European Union in crisis
For one, the attacks have been utilized by those political forces interested in the disintegration of the EU to attack the principle of free movement, and even EU solidarity. UKIP and other Brexit enthusiasts quickly blamed Schengen's failures for leaving the EU vulnerable to attacks – suggesting that a 'fortress UK' could be forged in the wake of a Brexit. Over the last nine months, the Hungarian government has repeatedly linked immigration and terrorism, and effectively charged German immigration policy with endangering their nation. Marine Le Pen hinted that the infamous French counterterrorism measure of 'the Battle of Algiers' might be the solution. Unsurprisingly, the Russian government and its sympathizers in the EU lost no time in calling for unity against terrorism – at a time of considerable concern over Russia's attempts at hollowing out popular support for the European Union and wider transatlantic co-operation.
The point of terrorism is often to provoke an overreaction, as states blindly hit back or take rapid, ill-conceived action in order to appear decisive. In the EU's case, there is little danger of a classic counterproductive overreaction of the 'Global War on Terror' type, since the EU is not set up for swift and decisive action. The problem is rather that, at a time when solidarity and co-operation are the main building blocks of a response, the EU is more divided than ever. The genius of terrorism and guerilla warfare is that it leverages violence. Lenin supposedly said that the purpose of terrorism is to terrorize. Even if the attribution is apocryphal, the point stands: terrorists generate fear that is out of proportion to the actual loss of life or limb. For the EU, the real risk is that terrorism and the fight over how to respond opens up further cleavages and exacerbates existing crises, rather than encourage co-operation.
This article was first published at TransCrisis' blog on March 24, 2016.
TransCrisis is a three‐year international research collaboration on EU transboundary crisis‐management.