This week’s terrorist attacks in Belgium—claimed by the Islamic State show the terrible consequences of intelligence failures, and the tremendous challenges that face European countries as they attempt to protect public safety and social cohesion during a time of increased security threats. Aviation and rail transit systems can be extremely difficult to protect, and given their particular vulnerabilities it’s remarkable that there haven’t been more attacks of this type and scale to date. The concern in Western capitals in and beyond Europe stems from the likelihood that these relatively low-tech but mass impact attacks may be a harbinger of more to come.
Owing to the way in which ISIS has evolved, the operationalisation of an external wing responsible for facilitating, coordinating and inciting attacks against Western interests was all but inevitable. The development took place in plain sight, with the group publicly telegraphing its intentions around the same time as organisational changes in mid to late 2014 after its declaration of a Caliphate. Of course seeing the transition of a group to initiate and operationalise this type of capability doesn’t equate to tactical insights as to how, where and when its assets might strike, or the type and degree of coordination occurring with the central hub or designated affiliates.
Nonetheless, Tuesday’s attacks were as unsurprising as they were shocking. Belgium has a deeply embedded and operationally active jihadi ecosystem that long predates the rise of the Islamic State and the EU’s loss of border control. In recent years, that network has evolved from a primarily ‘outside’ focus and external facilitation role to an inward one characterised by active plotting of attacks inside Belgium—in the case of ISIS directed or incited plots, first against security services and then, against Belgian society writ large. For months, the country’s alert level has indicated that an attack inside its own borders and against its own people is imminent.
The shock that rippled through political capitals following Tuesday’s attacks was, in this respect, not only about the scale of the attacks but the scope of the intelligence failure they portended—particularly in view of the Belgian authorities’ intensive counterterrorism efforts in recent times. In many Western capitals emergency committee meetings were called, and heads of state no doubt asked their national security leaders whether a similarly successful plot could catch out their own security services.
There are a number of similarities between how ISIS inspired or directed jihadist targeting efforts have evolved in both Belgium and Australia. Both countries have witnessed a shift in jihadist focus from outward to inward, and a centrally-directed move by ISIS supporters to target law enforcement—also reflected in other countries. The attacks on Paris and Brussels appear to have stemmed from similarly directed moves, and guidance and training focused on targeting civilians. In view of Australia’s jihadist ecosystem showing similar evolutionary tendencies and reflecting the influence and uptake targeting guidance, it’s likely we may see future plots focus on civilian targets on home soil.
There are, however, a number of constraining factors. Our geographical isolation and strict border security regime gift agencies with a comparatively static pool of persons to monitor. On the whole our jihadist supporters have received less training and are more disconnected, although they’ve shown a susceptibility to external direction and ability to radicalise and organise among themselves.
In recent years Belgian authorities have conducted counterterrorism efforts at an unprecedented operational tempo. For some time now, it’s been a case of all hands on deck, which is exactly when intelligence failures are most likely to occur. But Belgium is far from alone in dealing with an ever increasing operational tempo and overstretched counterterrorism resources. That’s no doubt one of the main reasons the attack caused so many jitters in Western counterterrorism circles. Indeed, one would be hard pressed to find any Western police force, Australia included, that would say it had enough resources to adequately deal with the current threat environment.
In fact several Australian police forces have made it clear that they’re overstretched and doing what they can with what they have but that resourcing is far from adequate. If there are, for example, not enough resources for reactive coverage of all those deemed a counterterrorism concern, what hope is there of intelligence-led proactive policing work to identify terrorist networks before they strike? Overstretched resources weaken our policing capabilities more than geography can ever protect us, particularly in an era where command and control can be exercised and training can be carried out through the use of encrypted phone apps.
In the conversations Malcolm Turnbull had with our police and national security chiefs after the attack, one hopes he not only asked the question, ‘What do you need?’ but that he committed to providing it in the forthcoming budget.