National Security & Defense

Two Lessons from the Slaughter in Brussels

Passengers evacuate the Brussels airport after the bombing. (Sylvain Lefevre/Getty)

At least three — probably four — jihadists have carried out two separate attacks in Brussels. Three attackers were involved in strikes at the airport in Brussels, and one set off an explosion at Maelbeek metro station. More than 30 people are dead. ISIS has claimed responsibility and is highly likely to be the culpable party. While it will take days before we know the full story, there are two important conclusions that we can make now.

First, Belgium is in an undeniable state of crisis. These attacks were complex, deadly, and conducted against two hard (rather than so-called soft) targets. For years now, Belgium has faced an extremely serious jihadist threat, but since the Paris attacks, it has been on extremely high alert. To deter and defeat attacks, heavily armed police officers and soldiers have been on constant patrols in public locales such as metro stations and airports. That the suspects knew this and still chose these targets indicates that they had made extensive prior plans and that they were confident of success. They are attempting to send the signal to Belgians — and Europeans more generally — that their governments will not keep them safe.

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The attacks also suggest that ISIS has other well-trained covert cells in Europe. That these attacks took place so soon after last Friday’s arrest of Paris attack suspect Salah Abdeslam may indicate that the cell feared they could be compromised in Abdeslam’s interrogations. Regardless, we must not underestimate the complexity of today’s attacks, which suggests the attackers were confident of remaining undetected and had some degree of compartmentalization away from other ISIS cells in Europe. The complexity also hints at the likely possibility the terrorists are relying on encrypted communications. As I wrote following the Paris attacks, Belgians are living in a state of fear. Today will only fuel that fear.

#share#And that leads to my second point: This is another major wakeup call for the West. Even the most delusional among us — those who say that chocolate/lightning/sharks etc. are greater threats than ISIS — must now acknowledge that ISIS threatens to tear apart democratic civil society. That’s because no society can be healthy when public places become citadels of fear. A commute might be annoying, but it should not instill a fear of death. And that’s the key point here: ISIS wants innocents to believe that they are not safe, that their children are not safe, and that public places are no-go areas. Increasing numbers of innocent people will accept that fear and retreat behind closed doors.

#related#Moreover, the threat isn’t just real, it is growing. This is evidenced by the apparent find of chemical materials, nails, and explosives in a recent raid conducted by Belgian security forces. (Last month at National Review Online, I outlined the ISIS chemical-weapons threat and predicted that it would take shape in European terror plots.)

We can no longer afford to be patient. ISIS is slashing to shreds a defining tenet of liberal society: our expectation that we can live freely in the pursuit of happiness. I spoke to a close friend in Brussels today and asked her whether she felt safe in Brussels. Her response was chilling but understandable: “It makes us want to leave, but we’re not sure the rest of Europe is any safer.”

If we care about free societies, defeating ISIS is the central challenge of our time.

Tom Rogan is a columnist for National Review Online, a contributor to the Washington Examiner, and a former panelist on The McLaughlin Group. Email him at


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