Observations On Terrorism In Belgium

Tonight in Belgium, authorities raided a number of sites to arrest terrorists who were planning, and apparently about to execute, attacks in that country. In one instance, the terrorists opened fire, with the result that two terrorists were killed and one wounded. That made headlines, but the problem is broader:

Thierry Werts, a representative of the Belgian federal prosecutor, said at a news conference in Brussels on Thursday night that the targets of the raids had been plotting “imminent” attacks on a substantial scale in Belgium.

The raids, occurring little more than a week after the terrorist attacks in Paris, took aim at people who had joined Islamic extremist groups in Syria or other battle zones, and then returned to Europe — a potential threat that has consumed intelligence and security services since well before the Paris attacks, officials said.

A few observations:

1) The threat posed by young Europeans or Americans, would-be jihadists, who travel to Syria or Iraq to fight with ISIS, or to Yemen to join al Qaeda, and then return to their home countries, has been obvious for a while. After the Paris attacks and tonight’s events in Belgium, that threat is front and center, especially in Europe. An estimated 3,000 to 5,000 Europeans are in this category; many have now returned to their home countries and are receiving instructions from their leaders in ISIS or al Qaeda. The number of jihadists who have left the United States for this purpose is smaller, reportedly numbering in the hundreds.

2) It seems obvious that anyone who leaves the U.S. or a European country to fight for ISIS or al Qaeda should not be allowed to return. But we are talking about citizens here–Belgian authorities have said, I believe, that the terrorism suspects are all Belgian citizens–and so far, to my knowledge, no country has enacted such a ban. This may not be entirely due to a lack of will. The jihadists travel to a legal destination–Turkey, say–and disappear from there. While authorities may be aware of them and know that they have jihadist sympathies, there may or may not be clear evidence that a particular person joined ISIS or al Qaeda. Still, it seems long past time for Western countries, including the U.S., to try to prevent such obvious terror threats from re-entering the country.

3) The Belgian case is one more instance where authorities have been able to identify and track potential terrorists, and apprehend or kill them in time to prevent a serious attack. It is reasonable to assume that electronic surveillance of some sort played a role in this successful operation. Liberals have sometimes questioned whether attacks in the U.S. have actually been forestalled, or whether threats have been serious. Even some conservatives, like Rand Paul, have elevated privacy rights that, while legitimate, are almost entirely hypothetical, above the needs of law enforcement. Given what we have observed over the last thirteen years, it seems obvious that terrorist threats are real, that our government and others have prevented many serious attacks and thereby have saved many lives, and that toward that end, electronic surveillance is an important tool. Privacy issues are real but must be assessed in that context.

4) On national security, Barack Obama has shrunk to a cipher. Charles Krauthammer wrote, just before tonight’s events in Belgium:

As for President Obama, he never was Charlie, not even for those 48 hours. From the day of the massacre, he has been practically invisible. At the interstices of various political rallies, he issued bits of muted, mealy-mouthed boilerplate. Followed by the now-famous absence of any high-ranking U.S. official at the Paris rally, an abdication of moral and political leadership for which the White House has already admitted error.

But this was no mere error of judgment or optics or, most absurdly, of communications in which we are supposed to believe that the president was not informed by staff about the magnitude, both actual and symbolic, of the demonstration he ignored. (He needed to be told?)

On the contrary, the no-show, following the near silence, precisely reflected the president’s profound ambivalence about the very idea of the war on terror.

No doubt Obama will issue another generic statement on the Belgian jihadists, probably without any mention of Islam. But no one expects anything more from him. There are leaders in the Western world, but he is not one of them.

But why? Some think the reason is ideological: he really doesn’t want to oppose Islamic terror–not strenuously, anyway–and besides, he still hopes for an alliance with Iran. Some think he is too lazy, too busy golfing or watching ESPN, to bother. My own suspicion–pure speculation, supported only by observation and circumstantial evidence, like Obama’s refusal to release his medical records–is that he suffers from depression and may be nearly disabled by that condition. But that is a topic for another time.

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