AS BELGIUM counted the victims of the latest Islamic state terror attack in a European capital, governments all over the continent tightened security and put police on increased alert. The reality, however, is that there is only so much that a state’s security forces can do to protect citizens going about their daily lives in busy, populous cities, because the Islamist killers also live there. No amount of profiling at ports of entry, which rights groups have been protesting against, and screening would increase security as the potential terrorists are already living in the country.
Many reports said Tuesday’s attacks may have been linked to the capture last Friday, after a shootout with Belgian police, of the prime surviving suspect of November’s Paris attacks that killed more than a hundred people. The suspect, Salah Abdeslam, was a Belgian citizen who lived in the Molenbeek district of Brussels, known as a Jihadi haven, and not an IS jihadist that had slipped into Europe because of lax security at a European airport. This is the biggest problem facing security forces in European countries – potential attackers are part of the population.
Security services in Western European countries have put suspected militants under surveillance but it is practically impossible to keep a tab on all potential terrorists. In some countries services rely on co-operation and tip-offs from members of the Muslim community, which is helpful to efforts to prevent attacks but is no guarantee against future acts of terror. The same is true of the CCTV systems that have become a feature of big cities, despite protests that this was a Big Brother measure violating people’s rights. In times of war, people’s rights might suffer, but it is a small price to pay.
Random terror attacks constitute a new form of war and states are developing ways to defend their citizens, aware that casualties are unavoidable. How could anyone know that a person entering a busy train station in a big city during rush hour is a suicide bomber whose suitcase is full of explosives? Would the next step be for governments to install bag scanners at the entrances of train stations and airports? Would more people be stopped and searched on city high streets?
If this could have stopped the terrorists it would have been done, but security services and governments know that no amount of measures can guarantee people’s safety. They could make it more difficult for terrorists to strike, but the reality is that the danger of a terror attack will recede only once IS and other Islamist terror groups are crushed, something that does not look like happening any time soon.