The key to dealing with terrorism? Assuming it won’t go away

Updated on
Brussels attack memorial

MUNICH, Germany — Since Tuesday’s deadly terrorist attacks in Brussels, observers around the world have been preoccupied with an agonizing question: Are attacks like these the “new normal”?

As the Economist reports, the Belgian tragedy introduced two lessons — the first of which is about the Islamic State’s shocking resourcefulness. The second, it wrote, is that major Western cities “will have to get used to a long campaign of terror in which all are targets.”

Many experts agree, pointing out that counterterrorism wonks have long factored a level of inevitability into their work.

“Those who actually do this as practitioners understand that there is no perfection in this business,” said Ian Lesser, head of the Brussels office of the German Marshall Fund of the United States. “That [fighting terror is] a matter of limiting risk, channeling risk and containment.”

A manhunt is underway for surviving suspects in the bombings at Brussels' international airport and subway that claimed 31 lives, including at least two Americans, seven Britons, as well as Dutch, Chinese and other nationals. Several suspected bombers were believed killed in the explosions.

In the aftermath of the attacks, officials and analysts have predictably begun searching for answers. A lot of the focus has fallen on the lack of resources facing the Belgian security services, as well as the country’s peculiar bureaucratic history, and track record of social and ethnic cleavages.

But in big-picture terms, experts say the public would do well to accept the fact that there’s no quick fix to global terrorism.

George Taylor, vice president for global operations at the risk assessment firm iJET, says people often underestimate the determination and pervasiveness with which jihadi extremists operate in society.

“These are people that are now taking time to mount an army to attack us,” he said. 

The Islamic State (IS) has trained as many as 400 fighters to target Europe in violent attacks, the Associated Press reports, citing European and Iraqi intelligence officials. CNN says investigators are aware of other IS terror plans in Europe with possible links to Brussels and the November attacks in Paris.

“In some ways, terrorism amounts to a guerrilla war: they’ve infiltrated certain parts and pockets of our society,” Taylor said.

One way to adjust to that reality, he added, might require governments to speak with greater candor about the severity of the threats their countries face. French Prime Minister Manuel Valls perhaps served as an example shortly after the Brussels attacks when he declared, “We are at war.”

More from GlobalPost: Global financial markets are getting used to terrorism

But for the authorities, there’s also what the German Marshall Fund expert describes as a dilemma of public diplomacy: On one hand, citizens expect to be kept safe from terrorism by a functioning and capable state. But on the other, completely eradicating terrorism — just like with violent crime — is simply unrealistic.

What’s more, Lesser added, counterterrorism successes are rarely publicized, while failures are instantly obvious.

Germany’s interior minister was publicly ridiculed last November for refusing to disclose the details of a foiled terror plot that threatened to blow up a soccer stadium in Hanover, reflecting the tricky nature of keeping the public informed.

“It’s an extraordinarily difficult public affairs challenge for any government,” Lesser said.

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