At around 12:45 p.m. Eastern time (5:45 local), Belgian SWAT teams — likely the Federal Police’s elite CGSU unit (the equivalent of the FBI’s Hostage Rescue Team) — were involved in a gun battle with suspected jihadists in Belgium’s eastern city of Verviers. At least two jihadists have been killed, and a number of others arrested. Approximately ten other raids have taken place across the country. As of this writing, reports suggest that another raid in Verviers is underway.
According to Belgian security sources, the suspects had recently returned from Syria and were under intense monitoring by intelligence services. Belgium’s federal prosecutor’s office also claimed that the suspects were planning an imminent attack — possibly against police officers or a police station. Most notably, the suspects appear to have been directed by ISIS.
If ISIS is indeed involved, today’s events are important for two reasons.
First, it would mean that ISIS has trained and successfully returned an operational terrorist cell or cells to Western Europe. While this isn’t a shock — last May, I suggested ISIS posed just this threat to the West — it would represent a critical juncture. To judge from the plot’s significant scale (the suspects were apparently armed with automatic weapons, and that there have been ten-plus raids suggests multiple attackers), ISIS would have proved its capability to conduct complex transnational attacks. That’s notable because while ISIS is succeeding in Iraq and Syria, analysts have debated its capacity to act internationally. Today’s events would seem to end that debate.
Second, by plotting a semi-“spectacular”-style attack, ISIS would signal a challenge to al-Qaeda for ”ownership” of the global Salafi-jihadist struggle. While ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has given increasing signals about Western attacks, and Westerners in ISIS have called for the same, some analysts believed that the group’s overriding strategic focus was Iraq and Syria.
Personally, however, I’ve never believed that. Driven by an ideological obligation to purge the world of apostasy, and thriving on its bloody propaganda, ISIS is existentially structured toward total global war. As indicated by its treatment of women, the group is defined by its ideological impulses. Unlike the Lebanese Hezbollah, for example, ISIS doesn’t apply its hatred alongside calculated strategy; instead, it rampages. Yet where Salafi-jihadism is a function of ideology, it’s also driven by the pursuit of perverse glory. And in the struggle for disaffected minds and global credibility, attacks on the West are the golden ticket. In part, that’s why al-Qaeda has also been so desperate to diversify and sell its brand. Al-Qaeda’s propaganda following the Paris attacks offers a case in point.
Regardless, today’s events prove the critical terrorist threat facing Europe. As I noted on last week’s McLaughlin Group, the diversity of this threat spectrum means that across the EU, counterterrorism services are stretched very thin. More attacks are likely.
As an extension, today’s events will have been closely followed by U.S. counterterrorism officials. In fact, the NSA — which provides a great deal of signal-intelligence support to Belgium — may have played a significant role in the investigation. That support isn’t just about kindness to an ally. EU passports, after all, enable easy travel to the United States.
We need to fix them.
— Tom Rogan is a columnist for the Daily Telegraph and a contributor to The McLaughlin Group. He holds the Tony Blankley Chair at the Steamboat Institute, is based in Washington, D.C., and tweets @TomRtweets.