This morning’s coordinated attacks on Brussels’ airport and metro show the likely presence of Islamic State-inspired or -directed terrorist networks embedded in Europe with the capacity to become operational within days. This demonstrates the long-standing threat posed by returning foreign fighters – evidenced by HJS research into Islamism-inspired terrorism in the UK which showed the centrality of overseas-trained operatives to mass-casualty plots.
Today’s attacks, like those in Paris in November last year, featured coordinated, simultaneous strikes using both suicide bombings and firearms, with gunshots being heard at Brussels’ airport prior to the explosions. This follows the arrest on Friday of Salah Abdeslam, the Brussels-born jihadist who fled Paris shortly after the attacks and had been hiding in Molenbeek, a district in Brussels seemingly central to jihadist networks in Europe.
While the perpetrators have yet to be identified, it is probable that they are linked to Abdeslam and/or Islamic State. One possibility is that this operation was brought forward in anticipation that information divulged by Abdeslam – as suggested by Belgian prosecutors – would lead to their arrests.
Up to 450 Belgians have travelled to join jihadists in Syria and Iraq, more per capita than any other European country. The cell responsible for the Paris attacks was not only directed by Islamic State, but also featured individuals who had trained and fought abroad before returning to Europe to carry out mass-casualty terrorist attacks.
HJS analysis has shown that foreign training or combat experience has been a distinguishing feature of Islamism-inspired terrorism in the UK for over 15 years. Seven of the eight major plots between 1999 and 2010, for example, contained cell members who had either fought or trained abroad, bringing back both bomb-making expertise and weapons training. Many also received direction from jihadist operatives or had returned from training camps in order to establish sleeper cells.
HJS research also shows that individuals with foreign terrorist training/combat experience have been much more prominent among the major terrorist plots in the UK than they were among all Islamism-inspired terrorist offenders. This demonstrates the potential danger posed by returning fighters and the need for governments across Europe to respond accordingly.