Tuesday’s deadly terrorist attacks in Brussels are yet another reminder that the scourge of terrorism in Europe is a long-term problem that may very well get worse before it gets better. It is also a stark reminder that the social and political fallout from such attacks have potentially far-reaching consequences for the European Union as a whole.
This much we know from the initial investigation. Two suicide bombers – brothers Khalid and Brahim El Bakraoui – detonated improvised explosive devices at Zaventem Airport. A subsequent review of video from airport security cameras show the Bakraoui brothers inside the terminal moments before the attack with a third suspect, not yet identified, who is now the subject of a continent-wide manhunt.
Barely an hour after the airport attack, a third improvised explosive device was detonated at the back of a subway car approaching the Maelbeek metro station. A total of at least 30 people were killed and more than 200 more injured in the two attacks, which Belgium’s Prime Minister Charles Michel described as a “black day” for the country.
Not surprisingly, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) claimed responsibility for both attacks.
Focus of the investigation
The main focus of the investigation at this point will be to identify the third suspect shown on airport surveillance video with the Bakraoui brothers, the person responsible for placing the explosive device inside the subway car, and other members of their cell. They will also want to corroborate ISIL claims of responsibility for the attacks.
Less than a week ago, Europe’s most wanted fugitive, Salah Abdelslam – the only known survivor of the ISIL cell that murdered 130 people in Paris last November – was arrested by Belgian police not far from his family home in the Molenbeek area of Brussels, giving a justifiable yet short-lived sense of relief to Europe.
Of the estimated 30,000 or so foreign fighters who have travelled to Syria and Iraq since 2011, more than 5,000 came from Western Europe
Quite telling, however, Abdelslam reportedly told investigators that he was planning another attack, but provided no details.
Investigators will be eager to determine whether yesterday’s attacks were what Abdelslam was referring to. If not, the likelihood that one or more other unknown terrorist cells are already operational in Europe dramatically increases – an all too real nightmare scenario supported by numbers that concern European leaders and their security services the most.
Of the estimated 30,000 or so foreign fighters who have travelled to Syria and Iraq since 2011, more than 5,000 came from Western Europe – and most of those from just four countries: 1,700 from France, 760 each from the UK and Germany and 470 from Belgium.
Just as disturbing, it is estimated that as many as one out of four of those fighters has already returned home, providing a potential base of support for existing and new cells determined to carry out more attacks in Europe.
Wider political implications
But beyond the obvious security concerns associated with terrorist cells operating inside Europe, the tragic attacks that unfolded in Brussels yesterday have much wider political implications for the EU, which is still dealing with the aftermath of last November’s terrorist attacks in Paris and a migrant crisis with seemingly no end in sight.
Expect continued and heated debate on EU border controls, particularly as they relate to the Schengen Agreement, which allows free movement across the borders of all but six member states.
The Schengen zone has been under fire since the start of the migrant crisis in early 2015, but after the Paris attacks, France and certain other member states enacted strict border control measures. The European Commission wants all border controls within the zone lifted by the end of 2016.
However, with yesterday’s attacks in Brussels and the real threat of more such attacks to follow elsewhere in Europe, doing so at this point may be too politically difficult to enforce.
Consider also, the recent yet tenuous agreement between Turkey and the European Union to limit the flow of refugees and asylum seekers into Europe. One the one hand, the threat of sustained terrorist attacks within EU member states, particularly after yesterday’s tragic events in Brussels, could place more focus on strengthening external borders, leading to even closer ties and more cooperation with Turkey.
But it also quite possible those attacks will reignite anti-Muslim sentiment in Europe and increase popular demands for EU governments not to grant visa-free travel to Turkish citizens – a key condition by Ankara in return for their cooperation on migrant issues.
There is also the very real concern that nationalist movements across the EU will use the fear of more terrorist attacks to force mainstream political parties to adopt at least some hardline measures aimed at Muslim immigrants.
Those same sentiments can also bolster the cause for political parties and groups in the United Kingdom that are determined to see it leave or at least become more isolated from the EU.
Without doubt, the EU is faced with the reality that a long-term threat from terrorist attacks inside its borders is an issue it will have to deal with from a security standpoint, as well as socially and politically.
The challenge will be to maintain balance so as not to swing too far to the right on the political spectrum. To do otherwise, could easily spell the end of the EU as we know it.
Martin Reardon is a senior vice president with the Soufan Group, a New York-based strategic security and intelligence consultancy, and senior director of Qatar International Academy for Security Studies. He is a 21-year veteran of the FBI and specialised in counterterrorism operations.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.