Thirty-two people were killed on 22 March 2016 when terrorists exploded bombs at Brussels’ international airport and at a busy underground station. It was Belgium’s worst ever terrorist incident, causing as many fatalities and injuries as all 140 previous attacks over the past 45 years.
Although the Brussels terrorist cell was small, its members were part of a larger network, which was also responsible for the carnage of the coordinated attacks in Paris, in November 2015.
Salah Abdeslam is their most notorious member, and one of the few survivors; his arrest on 18 March 2016 most probably triggered the Brussels cell to change its plans and strike earlier than envisaged. The original plot may have been far deadlier.
All members of the Brussels network identified with Daesh (also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, ISIS) and most of them had joined the group in Syria, some for a short while, but others for over two years. Except for Abdeslam and one of the underground suicide bombers, all were returning foreign terrorist fighters – ‘returnees’, as they are known.
In 2012, Belgium was the first European country to connect the dots and warn its European counterparts that youngsters had started travelling to Syria in growing numbers. In early 2013, the head of the Coordination Unit for the Threat Analysis publicly raised the alarm about the potential risk from radicalised and trained terrorists.