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Tuesday, March 22, 2016 

On Brussels.

One of the more remarkable things about failed suicide bombers is that after their explosives have failed to blow, they often turn out to be more than willing to talk, boast and/or plea for the mercy they would deny their victims than keep shtum, as though they've almost been born again.  The Donald's immediate response to today's outrages in Brussels has been to once again make clear how he would "do a lot more than waterboarding".  The Donald can't of course be expected to know that after his arrest last week, Salah Abdesalam freely told Belgian police that he had been planning further attacks.  Abdesalam could have been talking nonsense, but the Belgian foreign minister commented saying he feared he was telling the truth, such were the weapons found and a further network uncovered in the course of tracking down the one remaining Paris attacker still on the run.

Not that today's suicide bombings are necessarily the work of the wider cell, but the assumption obviously has to be that they are.  Whether they brought the attacks forward to the first possible opportunity or the plan was for today anyway, the immediate question is whether there are still further cell members at large, something that can hardly be ruled out considering the clearly extended networks that sheltered first Abdelhamid Abaaoud and until Friday Abdesalam.  Then and only then will attention turn to whether those responsible could have been stopped from carrying out today's carnage, such were the signs an attack was imminent.

At the moment more than a few things about the attacks fail to completely add up.  The bombers at Zaventem airport took at least one AK-47 with them, only it would seem not to use it; nor is it certain at the moment if both explosions were the work of the two men pictured, or of explosives hidden in suitcases, after one such device was found and defused later.  Was the other man seen in the CCTV picture meant to be a further bomber, or to shoot down those fleeing from the explosions?  Either way, he either seems to have gotten cold feet at the last minute, much like Abdesalam, or his explosives failed to go off.  Should we read anything into the claim of responsibility from Islamic State saying that shooting had also taken place at the airport, when there are no eyewitness reports or videos to suggest there was?  Was IS aware of the plan, as was, in detail, or is it just typical jihadi hyperbole, confusion based on misreading of news reports?

Otherwise, as terrible as this sounds, this was an almost standard attack of the kind we were meant to fear before the threat was thought to have shifted to that posed by "lone wolves".  The attackers were suicide bombers, and unlike in Paris their explosives both worked and were extremely powerful; they co-ordinated their attacks, striking one target quickly after the last; the target was public transportation; and just to add further symbolism, the attack on the train at the metro station in Maelbeek happened within eyesight of the EU commission HQ.  The train bombing was especially brutal as explosions in tight, confined spaces always are and as can be seen from the photograph from Twitter that has been circulating, censored on news sites; shredded flesh, and little else left.  Again, terrible as this sounds, today's attack has been less affecting for those of us at a distance than the Paris attacks because they seem familiar, less threatening because they didn't involve the attackers hitting one area with assault weaponry, or taking over a building where a substantial number of those stopped from leaving were killed.

How far the attacks can be truly linked to Islamic State also remains unclear.  Paris was without doubt an IS authored operation; whether this was looks far more uncertain, not least because Abdesalam would have been expected to die in those attacks.  Another immediate concern is whether the bomb maker is one and the same or is still alive, as this time their work certainly didn't partially fail.  Unless the explosives were provided from another source, then the person who concocted them will have had to be trained somewhere, and again you'd assume straight off that was either in Syria or Iraq.  Were those responsible returnees from Syria, again as you'd assume based on Paris, or part of the larger network linked to both attacks?

Why it is that Brussels has given refuge to so many jihadists is also an open question.  Jason Burke gives a number of answers, while others suggest a possible link to Belgium itself being a divided, weak state.  Is it the very cosmopolitan nature of Brussels that has helped such people to hide themselves, or is it much the same problems elsewhere that have been exacerbated by the sheer number of extremists that have came from and then in turn been attracted to Molenbeek and other Brussels suburbs?

As is apparent, tonight there are far more questions than answers.  As the War Nerd has intimated, you do dread the immediate response to such attacks, the search for scapegoats, the confirmation bias on display from so many, the very lack of response from some.  Rage as he says is the most honest place to start, but also today there has been more a weariness, a feeling that something like this was going to happen sooner rather than later in Brussels, such has been the activity there the last few months.  There doesn't seem the same level of fear and uncertainty as after Paris, because the situation isn't as comparable.  Whether that is a false reassurance or not, it makes clear IS has taken over from al-Qaida as the main inspiration/instigator behind those prepared to attack the West.  It also though further makes clear that intelligence is key when it comes to preventing these more conventional plots, something that the Brussels police and intelligence agencies have not managed to cultivate.  The hope has to be that this gives us the edge against those who wish to do us harm.  Again, whether this is a similarly clutched at straw we can but wait and see.

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