Philip Johnston: The EU aspires to be a state but if it can't keep its citizens safe, it is a failed one
Published 24/03/2016 | 02:30
Madrid, London, Paris. Now Brussels must be added to the lengthening list of European capitals targeted by Islamist fanatics in recent years. It is no surprise that the bombers who killed dozens in the Belgian city had links to the Molenbeek district, where at the weekend police shot and arrested the key suspect in November's Paris attacks.
The Brussels attackers will also have fought for Isil and returned home, possibly hiding among the tide of migrants arriving in Europe to avoid being picked up by police on the look-out for returnees.
Or they may just have wandered in and out of Belgium, France and the rest of continental Europe unmolested because the Schengen agreement's open borders made normal, counter-terrorist policing difficult, if not impossible.
It is tempting to see recent attacks in the context of the great migration crisis that has engulfed Europe in the past year.
An area without internal frontiers relies for its security upon the strength of its external borders; and those of the European Union (EU) have been woefully inadequate to the task. But the Islamist terrorist menace predates the migration crisis, the Syrian civil war and the rise of Isil.
The four suicide bombers from Yorkshire who killed 52 people on the London transport system in July 2005 were not spawned by the uprising against the Assad regime in Damascus. There are parallels, however: the 7/7 ringleaders were coached by al-Qa'ida at camps in Pakistan, just as the current crop of Isil-linked bombers will have received training and orders from Islamist leaders outside Europe.
Similarly, the Madrid train bombings in 2004, which killed 192 people and injured more than 1,800 - the bloodiest attack on European soil - were directed by al-Qa'ida. It makes little difference to the victims whether al-Qa'ida or Isil is behind these murderous assaults, the fact remains that the threat is here, now, and getting worse.
So what is to be done?
The obvious problem is that transport networks are easy targets for suicide bombers. In a major city it is simply not feasible to check everyone getting on the subway or boarding a train.
Keeping terrorists off aircraft is possible with scanners, yet we all know most of this is a charade: it is now suspected that the bomb that brought down a Russian airliner over the Sinai Desert in October was planted by a mechanic on the other side of the security checkpoints. And if bombers are simply going to detonate their devices in the departures hall, what then? Will we all have to go through scanners before entering the airport itself?
The basic requirements for dealing with this menace are good intelligence, diligent policing, public vigilance and a large amount of luck. At risk of giving a hostage to fortune, it is noteworthy that since 2005 there has been no mass casualty attack in the UK - and that is not for want of trying by jihadist groups. But the rise of Isil has made the jobs of counter-terrorist police in keeping tabs on the jihadists increasingly problematic.
It is one thing for young Muslims to become radicalised at home, either through the Internet or by someone they have met at the mosque or, as is far too often the case, in prison. But the ingredient that makes them truly dangerous is being schooled in Syria or another failed state on how to access and use guns and explosives.
This is the deadly legacy of the would-be caliphate, and it is why the UK authorities have been mad to allow jihadists who went to Syria to return.
It is estimated that some 800 have made the journey in the past six years, with possibly 100 killed in the fighting. Some 400 have come back to the UK, but few have been prosecuted, even though it is an offence to support Isil.
There have been about 50 prosecutions, usually of people who have helped jihadists on their way. Those who return and are identified are redirected into de-radicalisation programmes. But it only needs a handful to slip through the net to bring about carnage. Britain and Ireland are better at doing this than most other EU countries, not least because people coming into the countries have to pass through a physical frontier and always run the risk of being stopped.
On the continent, even if internal borders have been going up again in response to the migration crisis and the Paris attacks, even the most wanted man in Europe was able to live for months under the noses of Belgian police in Brussels. In the UK, co-operation is good between the intelligence agencies and the police; but this is not the case in some EU countries, including Belgium, where divisions between competing agencies and linguistic groups have been hard to break down despite recent reforms and attempted integration.
The growth of Molenbeek into a hotbed of Islamist radicalism and lawlessness has come as no surprise to people in Brussels; but the problem was ignored by successive Belgian governments - when the country had one at all.
There is also a grisly symbolism about this atrocity happening in Brussels, the administrative and spiritual centre of another failing political construct, the EU, for which the free movement of people is a fundamental and non-negotiable principle.
Why should the EU be facilitating the movement of people who would do us harm?
François Hollande of France called the Brussels murders "an attack on Europe". British Prime Minister David Cameron said Europe must "stand together".
Yet while the EU aspires to the trappings of a state it fails to fulfil the basic function of one, which is to protect its citizens from harm.
Indeed, in attempting to forge a state by removing its internal borders without first securing its outer frontiers the EU has arguably increased the dangers to its people.
Horrors such as those visited upon Brussels will inevitably feed into the debate about the UK's future in Europe, even if they know that the enemy is already inside the gates. (© Daily Telegraph, London)