In Brussels, people are resigned to a stark new reality of uncertainty and insecurity until a way is found to channel destructive energy positively.
Sunday 27 March 2016
A week is a long time in the fight against terrorism.
A dangerous display of triumphalism over the capture of Salah Abdeslam – the ISIS-affiliated terrorist who was at large since the Paris attacks last November – gave way to bewilderment and shock folllowing the dual attack in Brussels on Tuesday this week. Who could have predicted that?
Quite a few people, it seems, including Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who said Turkey warned Belgium about one of the men involved in the Brussles attacks – and even postulated its possibility during a UN speech not long after the recent Ankara attack.
Last June, Turkey is reported to have held one of the terrorists, Brahim el-Bakraoui, at Turkey's border with Syria and released him to the Netherlands with a warning that he had been a foreign fighter in Syria.
And then there are the conspiracy theorists and, of course, Donald Trump's claims that he saw it coming, plus countless others with a powerful sense of hindsight.
There are also those of us who live or work in Brussels and have our own theories, ideas and fears concerning the plight of the city and Europe's struggle dealing with the enemy within.
Close to home
As colleagues and I left an emergency staff briefing and discrete head count, I noted the time was 9:30 – just 30 minutes or so after the Maalbeek metro bombing and a little over an hour following the airport explosions. There was a moment of stunned silence. Management urged us to stay in the office, which is just opposite Brussels Central Station, and we watched as security men blocked the entrance and workers in the offices above the station were evacuated.
My colleagues popped in and out of meetings to take calls or answer queries from loved-ones. Several had to leave while they could still get out of the city before it was completely locked down.
A French colleague said she was not that surprised by the events: “When you kick over a termite mound, where are they supposed to go?” she remarked on the recent capture and security shake-up in the Brussels suburbs of Forest and Molenbeek the week before.
I understood what she meant. These actions would not pass without repercussions. Perhaps the speed with which the reprisal was issued by this Brussels ISIS terrorist cell – it is now clear that it is following their claim of responsibility in the hours after the bombing – is more the surprise element here. Unless of course Salah Abdeslam was only caught because of increased activities in preparation for this pre-planned attack.
Jan Jambon, Belgium's minister for security and home affairs, admits as much when he said there had been some chatter between Europe's security forces that something was brewing. But Belgium and France seemed too satisfied with the small victory the week before. Overstretched security forces have since learned that a week is long time in what is clearly a much longer battle against home-grown terrorism than anyone cares to fathom.
“How do you see this ever ending?” a friend from England asked in one of the many enquiries from loved-ones in the hours that followed the attacks. “I don't!” was the only answer I could muster as the realities and tiredness started to take effect.
Different this time
During the lock-down and level 4 security alert in Brussels after the Paris attacks in November 2015, life more or less carried on. Colleagues still showed up to work, despite shuttered shops and an eerie quiet around the station. There were more sirens than usual and the military trucks camped out in front of the luxury hotel opposite the station was a bit surreal, but there was no real sense of danger.
But this time is different. My back faces a big window overlooking the station just 40m over Rue Cantersteen. It sounds silly as I write this, but I worked half-slouched most of the day; not because of the despondency brought on by this sad day but because subconsciously I found myself wanting to be below the window blast level.
That's the new reality. Do I fear more horrific acts like this? It would be naive to say no. Will I succumb to the fear? No, of course not! This is the first reaction. Then after some thought, the more honest answer comes… I'm more vigilant, and if that means I change my behaviour even a little, then the effects of ‘terror' are there. For example, I used to get a coffee and sandwich quite often inside the main hall of the Central Station. I did that less after Paris; it just seemed such an obvious target. And now? I hate to admit it but I'm likely to steer clear of places like that… for a while or at least until the memory starts to wear off.
As I write this, I'm looking at a photo I took from my office on Tuesday evening as a massive line of workers snaked out from the station. With most trains and the metro out of action, they were all waiting to see how to get home to their safe villages. Strangers were offering a couch to crash on, taxis and volunteers were driving people around for free. Kind acts in an unkind world.
Anticipate the day
Some anticipated this day. Others hoped it would all be over with the capture of Abdeslam. But most are now resigned stoically to a stark new reality.
Termites are industrious creatures and work with an absolute sense of purpose and order. You can't stop them by knocking down their homes. They just rebuild. A new order is needed to channel that purpose in constructive ways.