Right after the September 11th attacks, I was part of a team that conducted some terrorism training for all personnel at Logan Airport in Boston, Massachusetts. The Terrorism Research Center’s (TRC) Aviation Security team would later conduct our Global Threats to Aviation at a number of airports across the United States. Participants in the training were taught to understand that the while airports have secured areas terrorist attacks could be launched or conducted in the pre-secured areas as well as teaching how terrorists have attack the aviation segment of transportation.
I always think back to the first flight I made out of BWI Airport after September 11th. On that day, BWI Airport had heavy security at all the security checkpoints manned by private security, law enforcement and even National Guard troops. But what bothered me as I lined up with hundreds of travelers backed up awaiting our turn to show our identification and have our carry-on bags checked was that in this area security was almost nonexistent. I say nonexistent hoping that there were some undercover officers screening travelers but as I looked around there were none. Every once and a while an unarmed private security officer would make the rounds telling everyone to move forward in the long line. Law enforcement officers and security personnel need to screen people arriving, parking, and being dropped off in taxis and other forms of transportation at the airports. But this effort requires additional personnel and airports are all about profits and keeping the flying customers happy.
One of the lessons TRC imparts in our training is that terrorists used different types of containers and deception to lull security into a false sense of security. Over 2500 years ago Sun Tzu wrote in the Art of War that “all war is deception.” The terrorists who attacked the Brussels airport and the Maelbeek Metro Station used deception. After being dropped off at the airport by a taxi cab the terrorist got three luggage push carts. Ibrahim El Bakraoui and Najim Laachraoui loaded their heavy luggage (bombs) on the cart looking like any other traveler. Using deception was a key part of their plan. The only abnormal thing was that the two suicide bombers had a black glove on their left hands. We have seen suicide bombers disguise their bombs in numerous types of containers. Luggage, backpacks, cassette radios, shoe bomb, underwear bomb, camera bomb, printer bomb, sports drink bomb (Liquid Explosives) bicycle bombs, watermelon bomb, car bombs, truck bombs, and even a birdcage bomb are all examples of how terrorists have used deception. The global threat to aviation continues and ISIS now reminds us once again that deception is a key element in launching these attacks. Luggage is just one of many “containers” that suicide bombers can use to execute a suicide bombing.
Europe’s most wanted terrorist Salah Abdesalam was finally captured after 120 days of eluding police. On November 13th, Salah Abdesalam didn’t detonate his suicide vest as part of the Paris attacks. Instead of going through with his part of the attack he called friends seeking someone to drive the 180 miles to Paris. The first friend he called stated that he didn’t want to put the miles on his leased vehicle. Salah next called Mohamed Amri and Hamza Attou, two friends who drove from Brussels to Paris to spirit him back to the old neighborhood. It should come as no surprise that Abdesalam went to ground in the area he grew up in-the Molenbeek District of Brussels. Many of the Paris attackers had ties to the Molenbeek District. The Molenbeek area can best be described as a working class Muslim neighborhood where jihadi recruiters have been able to manipulate and motivate individuals. Many people say that unemployment and poverty are the reasons that segments of the Molenbeek District are marginalized. However, the Abdesalam brothers were business owners not unemployed or in poverty.
Ibrahim and Salah Abdesalam owned the Les Begoines Pub on Rue des Beguines. In August 2015, police raided the pub due to complaints about drug usage. A notice was sent after the raid to the bar for the owners to contest why the bar should not be closed. Neither Ibrahim or Salah Abdesalam attended the hearing. Instead on September 30, 2015, they sold the bar six weeks before the Paris attacks. It doesn’t appear that the two brothers were pious Muslims, owning a bar and allegedly selling drugs from this establishment.
How could Europe’s most wanted terrorist hide out in the neighborhood he was from and worked in remains a question that investigators will be seeking to answer during their interrogation with Salah Abdesalam. With the intensive manhunt by police in Brussels, Salah Abdelsalam’s picture and wanted info was being circulated on social media and on the news. Yet, Abdelsalam it seems was able to survive and elude police looking for him right in his own neighborhood. It should have been hard for someone to move without being noticed. But yet he was able to elude police hiding right under their nose in his neighborhood. As with so many of these cases there is always individuals providing some level of shelter and support.
In the Terrorism Research Center’s “Terrorism 360: Hidden in Plain Sight” training program we show how numerous terrorists over the years have been able to evade police and the intelligence dragnets set up to locate and capture them. Many of them hide in locations they are quite familiar with and have a level of support. Depending on the level of support provided we have seen terrorists like Eric Robert Rudolph evade capture for more than five years.
Eric Rudolph after conducting four domestic bombings in the United States was able to evade capture from July 27, 1996 to May 31, 2003. Rudolph was captured by Jeff Postell, an alert police officer in Murphy, North Carolina. Murphy was a location that Eric Rudolph knew quite well and had support within the community. Segments of the Murphy community at times seemed to be working against the law enforcement community looking for Rudolph. Some stores in that area sold t-shirts that said “Run Eric Run.” Terrorists can not survive nor hide in plain sight without logistical support, shelter and people willing to finance them while they are on the lam. For law enforcement to capture terrorists and criminals they require information from the communities they serve. Neighborhoods like Molenbeek require police to be proactive and working with the communities they serve. Enlisting the aid of the community is the quickest way to capture someone hiding in plain sight. But in a neighborhood known to be where so many individuals have traveled to Syria to fight with ISIS this neighborhood will be a challenge for police to get residents to trust the police.
Early reports from Brussels are that two coordinated attacks have taken place with the first being at the Brussels Airport Departure Terminal and the second within the Brussels Subway system. It is being reported that there have been attacks at two locations within the Brussels Airport and three subway stations have been attacked. As with all information right after an attack more accurate information will flow after detailed investigations.
With the arrest of Salah Abdesalam on Friday it appears that the ISIS terrorist network in Brussels has sped up its attacks that were in the pipeline. After the arrest of Abdelsalam it had been reported that he has been “cooperating” with law enforcement. Members of the ISIS Brussels terror network would have been worried about what information Abdelsalam might be providing and thus would have sped up any operations that had been planned.
It took Brussels law enforcement authorities 120 days to finally capture Europe’s most wanted terrorist who escaped from Paris and returned to his hometown of Brussels. With the raid that captured Abdelsalam it has been reported that police seized a large cache of weapons that had been gathered for another potential attack.
Transportation in Brussels from the airport, trains and the subway system have all been shut down. American Airlines at the Brussels airport is reporting that all its employees are accounted for with no reported injuries. Brussels is a hub for reaching across Europe and such all of Europe needs to be on high alert. The ease of movement in Europe and the number of individuals that have traveled to Syria and returned to Brussels gives great concern. European borders are too open. The network of ISIS linked fighters and large communities of disenfranchised Muslims from other countries will continue to cause problems. It is not that intelligence and law enforcement have not known of active plots and the large number of active fighters in Brussels. Unfortunately, this is not the last ISIS inspired attack we will see in Europe.
Last week in Baltimore, Maryland I gave a talk to a corporate security division on the “Anatomy of a Terrorist Attack.” These days terrorist are becoming more sophisticated being able to seize hostages, conduct firearms attacks and suicide bombings while executing all three types of attacks simultaneously. Having the skill sets to build TATP devices, use encrypted messaging apps and being able to move terrorists unhindered to the targets are just a few things that law enforcement and the intelligence community have to think about. The Terrorism Research Center since the Mumbai Attacks has been teaching that all law enforcement need to be prepared to deal with multiple location terrorist attacks using firearms and suicide bombing attacks. What we are seeing in Brussels today is just another example of terrorists doing just that-attacking heavily populated transportation areas that are soft targets.