Vail Daily column: Challenges abound in wake of attacks

Matthew Kennedy
Valley Vocies
Matthew Kennedy

I turned the TV on Tuesday morning after waking up and immediately learned Brussels had fallen prey to the scourge of Islamist terrorism. The Belgian capital now joins Madrid, London, Paris and Istanbul as European cities that experienced similar events since the 9/11 attacks. The operation wasn’t on the magnitude of the Paris or Madrid bombings; it was closer in size to the London and Istanbul attacks. The event mandates asking several questions: Why was Brussels targeted? What is the city’s strategic significance? How is the event significant in militant Islamist circles? And could a similar-magnitude event happen on American soil?

The Brussels attack is noteworthy from several perspectives:

• The event entailed the same modus-operandi as the Paris attacks in November.

• The attack is the most symbolic of the Islamic State’s operations considering Brussels’ position within European political circles.

• The operation solidifies the Islamic State’s lethality compared to al-Qaida.

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• A similar attack in scale against an American based target cannot be discounted, yet it is less likely.

The operation is a turning point in European counter-terrorism affairs. The Brussels attacks occurred between 8 a.m. and 9 a.m. Belgium time during the city’s rush hour. Two bombs exploded at Brussels’ Zaventem airport; another at the Maelbeek station in the city’s subway system an hour later. The attacks killed more than 30 people, and injured at least 200. The event illustrates any European city is susceptible to an attack. It establishes the Islamic State as Europe’s and the United States’ premier terrorist threat. The operation finally replaces al-Qaida’s with ISIS as the principle international militant Islamic menace.

The Islamic State’s targeting of Brussels sends a message to counter-terrorism officials on both sides of the Atlantic: Europe’s cities are vulnerable to an Islamic State operation regardless of location. Brussels is one of the world’s tightest security areas owing to its status as the headquarters of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the European Commission, the European Parliament, and different United Nations offices. The Brussels attack illustrates the Islamic State can penetrate any European city, regardless of security precautions.

Tuesday’s attack elevated the Islamic State as the pre-eminent terrorism threat facing Europe and the United States. The Brussels’ operation allowed the Islamic State to claim the mantel from al-Qaida. The 9/11 attacks permanently placed al-Qaida in the history books as executing history’s worst terrorist attack to date. Al-Qaida and its affiliates executed several spectacular attacks in Europe, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia between 2001 and 2009. Their operations have decreased geographically and in magnitude since then. The Islamic State breach of Brussels’ anti-terrorism measures is a feat al-Qaida failed to achieve. The Islamic State’s successful orchestration of several medium and large scale attacks across Europe and in a closer frequency is an accomplishment Al Qaeda never attained. The Islamic State is gaining prominence over al-Qaida as evidenced by the number of militant Islamist groups switching allegiances from the Afganistan-Pakistan-based organization to the Syrian-Iraqi entity. The Islamic State is also augmenting its ranks at al-Qaida’s expense via a savvy Internet recruitment campaign. the Islamic State has replaced al-Qaida as principle militant Islamist threat facing international authorities consequently

A key question is can the Islamic State initiate a comparable attack on American soil? The answer is possibly, yet with difficulty. The San Bernardino attacks demonstrated the Islamic State’s potential reach into the United States. What remains unknown is whether the Islamic State could execute a Paris- or Brussels-sized attack against the American homeland. Understanding the differences between the United States’ and European counter-terrorism climates is vital towards addressing the issue. A vital distinction is access. It is difficult for the Islamic State operatives to relocate to the U.S. owing to the Atlantic Ocean, whereas Europe is adjacent to many areas where the Islamic State currently operates — the Middle East most notably. Individuals can also cross Europe’s borders more easily without detection — a situation harder to achieve in the United States. A successful execution of a Brussels-type attack by the Islamic State within the American homeland cannot be discounted, but achieving it will be difficult.

In conclusion, Europe is currently dealing with an array of issues — perhaps the most complex is neutralizing the ISIS threat. The challenge for European authorities is how to distinguish between innocent Muslims and Islamic State operatives. The task is complicated by discerning how to integrate the continent’s various Muslims into the area’s socio-economic-political communities, and decreasing a high unemployment rate among Europe’s Muslim youth population — both of which allow the Islamic State to sustain an attractiveness among the continent’s disenfranchised Islamic sectors. Europe will remain in the Islamic State’s crosshairs for the next years. The likelihood of another Paris or Brussels type attack is high for the foreseeable future.

Matthew Kennedy has a master’s degree in diplomatic studies from the University of Westminster in London. He’s lived in Europe, Asia and Russia. Comments or questions can be directed to

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