Erwann Michel-Kerjan and Max Abrahms on the Impact of the Brussels Attacks

Calls grew louder for stronger international cooperation to fight terrorism and tighten security measures after Tuesday’s attacks in the Belgian capital of Brussels that claimed at least 31 lives and left 270 wounded. However, clarity is yet to emerge on the contours of this next level of global cooperation — including ways to contain the Islamic State (ISIS), which claimed responsibility for the attacks.

In the coordinated attacks between 8 a.m. and 9 a.m. on Tuesday, two explosions occurred in the departure lounge of Zaventem Airport on the outskirts of Brussels, and a third occurred at a city subway station. Airport cameras picked up three suspects. Two of them were brothers — Khalid el-Bakraoui, 27, and Ibrahim el-Bakraoui, 30 – while the third was unidentified, the New York Times reported, quoting Belgian officials. Ibrahim and the third suspect blew themselves up in the airport explosions, while Khalid carried out a suicide attack at the Maelbeek subway station an hour later, the report noted. Belgian police are on the lookout for another suspect, Najim Laachraoui, who is linked to the terrorist attacks in Paris last November that left 130 dead and 368 injured.

The Brussels attacks are widely seen as an act of revenge by the Islamic State. They came four days after Belgian police arrested Salah Abdeslam, a member of the group of terrorists responsible for the Paris attacks. “What we feared has happened,” Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel said after the attacks.

According to Erwann Michel-Kerjan, executive director of Wharton’s Risk Management and Decision Processes Center, the Brussels attacks are resonating strongly with people because of the nature of the venues that were struck. “[The Paris attack] was at a nightclub, and people think: ‘Well, I don’t go to nightclubs.’ But airports and subway stations — look at your week: How many times do you take a subway or a bus?”

Tightening security across Europe is uppermost in people’s minds. Many leaders and counter-terrorism experts called for Belgium, in particular, to strengthen its security infrastructure because Brussels is “the de facto capital of Europe, but is also fast becoming the capital of Islamic radicalism in Europe,” the New York Times noted in an editorial. “If ISIS starts playing with more dirty bombs and small nuclear devices, that would have a massive impact not just on the level of the threat, but also on business communities,” Michel-Kerjan had warned in a Knowledge at Wharton interview soon after the November attacks in Paris.

The Brussels attacks also compelled U.S. presidential candidates to sharpen their strategies on terrorism. Republican candidate Donald Trump reiterated his call for a ban on Muslims entering the U.S. and legal sanctions to torture terrorism suspects. His party rival, Ted Cruz, called for patrolling of Muslim neighborhoods. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton wanted more tightening of visa systems and screening of passenger lists, but cautioned against using torture to extract information.

“I think that these kinds of events play into the hands of more right-wing candidates in the U.S.,” noted Max Abrahms, a Northeastern University political science professor and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. “It reinforces their message — which I don’t agree with — which is that Muslims categorically are dangerous people and that we need to prevent Muslims from coming into the United States.”

The attacks have reignited the debate over the influx of migrants into Europe, along with the argument that jihadists slip in under the guise of refugees. Earlier this month, German voters in regional elections rejected Chancellor Angela Merkel’s liberal policy on migrants. Her Christian Democratic Union party lost precious ground to right-wing parties that oppose the influx of migrants.

Michel-Kerjan and Abrahms discussed the impact of the Brussels attacks on Europe, as well as the implications for security, on the Knowledge at Wharton show on Wharton Business Radio on SiriusXM channel 111. (Listen to the podcast at the top of this page.)

An edited transcript of the conversation appears below.

Knowledge at Wharton: Erwann, we [had] this conversation a few months ago in the wake of the Paris bombings. Unfortunately, I’m not surprised that we’re having this conversation again. Are you?

Erwann Michel-Kerjan: No. Unfortunately, my expectation is that we may have further discussion [on this subject] in the next few months, given trends going on there. Europe is just starting to recognize that the threat is much more spread and intense than what we thought before the Paris attacks. It’s not something that just appeared overnight. It’s something that’s fundamentally there to stay. The mode of operation is extremely simple here. You put a bomb in your luggage, [and] you go to the airport. You don’t need to have a ticket, because you don’t pass the security yet. And the bomb explodes. [It is] the same thing for the subway explosion. It’s a tragedy, for sure.

“These are targets of opportunity. Terrorists are striking what they can. There doesn’t need to be a high level of symbolism.”–Max Abrahms

Knowledge at Wharton: Max, I’m guessing [this conversation is] no surprise for you either, unfortunately.

Max Abrahms: I agree with that summary. I also expect to see more violence of this sort. We’re describing the Paris attacks and Belgium attacks as if they’re separate. But they are, of course, closely interrelated. Some of the attackers in the Paris attacks came from Belgium. It looks like they used the same kind of bomb-making material. Even before that, in the Charlie Hebdo attacks, some of the weaponry came from Belgium. These [terrorists] knew each other. They worked together. They lived together, they planned together, they coordinated. This is unusual. This is a very large network of terrorists.

Even before the Belgium attacks, we estimated the network to be about 30-plus members. Now, after the Belgium attacks, it’s clearly bigger than that. Some of the [terrorists], apparently, are still on the loose. This is the worst-case scenario, where for the past couple of years, European countries have worried that all the foreign jihadis leaving from their country would radicalize even more, train, make contacts, build their networks, learn skills, maybe gain weapons, then return to the West and strike soft targets. That appears to be exactly what’s going on now.

Knowledge at Wharton: I heard one reporter refer to the airport in Brussels as a soft target. Maybe it’s a different perception in terms of what we see here in the United States compared to what is overseas. I don’t think of airports being soft targets. Go into that a little bit more, Max.

Abrahms: Well, I agree. In general, ISIS has been striking soft targets. Attacking inside of an airport [and] not the actual plane itself, might be coded — if you will — as a middling level of hardness. But the metro station was [also] attacked. These are targets of opportunity. Terrorists are striking what they can. There doesn’t need to be a high level of symbolism. That’s what makes counter-terrorism so difficult — these [people] don’t seem to be picky at all.

Knowledge at Wharton: Erwann, it goes back to what you said. If these bombs are going off before you go through security, then they are soft targets.

Michel-Kerjan: That’s exactly the definition. In the security world … “hard” means that you have to go through [a] security gate, and things of that nature. Imagine flying from the Philadelphia airport. You bring your luggage with you. You go in to get your ticket at the counter. You haven’t had any security check yet … until you’re by the doors and you have to take your shoes off. Until that point, you can carry on your luggage with a bomb in it, and no one’s going to stop you.

That’s also why people feel differently about what happened in Brussels, in the sense that [the attacks in] Paris [were at] a nightclub. People might say, “Well, I don’t go to nightclubs.” [But consider the] airport and subway station. Look at your week. How many times are you going to take the subway or a bus? Now you’re talking about mass transportation. To Max’s point, it’s very hard to prevent that. There is no way you can check everybody with the luggage until they go to the security check with their ticket.

Knowledge at Wharton: Do you think [that] because the people involved in the Paris bombing had links to Brussels Belgium need a greater focus in trying to root out [terrorist] cells?

Michel-Kerjan: That was my point earlier … that it’s not something that happened overnight. Anyone in the intelligence world would know that. You think you’re doing a good job until you realize that you have not. But these people [did not come] from Syria last week. They’ve been there for a long time. Their family has been there. Their friends and relationships have been there for a long time.

We’re talking about Belgium because it’s a different country than France. But the distance between Paris and Brussels is like [that between] New York and Washington. [They are] physically extremely close.

Knowledge at Wharton: This comes at a time where we are seeing massive numbers of refugees making their way up towards Europe. [The Brussels attacks] will put the focus on how this is all being handled across Europe.

Abrahms: You’re absolutely right. This question of refugees is becoming even more critical. These kinds of events play into the hands of right-wing candidates in the United States. It reinforces their message — which I don’t agree with — that Muslims categorically are dangerous people … [and] that we need to prevent Muslims from coming into the United States. In contrast to the type of border security we have in the U.S., there are very porous borders in Belgium and France, in Greece, and all over Europe.

It’s no surprise that we’ve seen, [in] the polling after the Paris attacks and especially after the San Bernardino attacks, it’s the right-leaning candidates — the Trumps, the Rubios [and the] the Cruzes — who benefited.

Knowledge at Wharton: Erwann, is this a discussion that has to grow within the European Union?

Michel-Kerjan: Yes. And to be fair, it has. Our center has done a lot of work on extreme events, from terrorism to natural disasters — pandemic, cyber-attacks, you name it. But the challenge with the terrorism threat is that the public or businesses don’t necessarily see the threat until it’s here. Communities don’t necessarily talk to each other. The [intelligence] community is tracking that, and Europe has been calibrating much more [now than] two or three years ago. We have not just Europe, but British, American and Israeli intelligence services working hard together. But the public and businesses don’t see [that].

People are going to ask for more stringent analysis of what has happened, and more stringent action moving forward. The challenge is … look at the number of people who have an interest in growing some [terrorism] cells, and then look at the very low level of sophistication of the weapons they’re using. I’m not talking about the coordination aspect [here].

“[Attacks] could happen again tomorrow anywhere in Europe. I don’t think the U.S. is immune to that.”–Erwann Michel-Kerjan

You can go on the Internet … and in 30 minutes learn how to make a bomb. And you can go to your favorite [store, and buy the equipment you need]. You’re not talking about complicated weaponry here. [Attacks] could happen again tomorrow anywhere in Europe. I don’t think the U.S. is immune to that. We’ve spent a lot of time with DHS (U.S. Department of Homeland Security) and other agencies looking at these issues, [asking], “What does that mean for the U.S.?” I agree with Max [Abrahms] that our frontiers are much more secure by design. Also, we’ve seen 9/11 and the Boston attack. But [such events] could happen anywhere tomorrow.

Knowledge at Wharton: Erwann, if the materials they are using are not that sophisticated, obviously there has to be a level of sophistication along the line for these people doing this, because these attacks continue to happen. [Many] would think that with [that] sophistication level, it would be a little bit easier [for police and government forces] to root out some of these incidents before they happen. But [many] people say, “Why do these continue to happen?”

Michel-Kerjan: The general public will not know when police [or intelligence] services [thwart] attacks. Obviously, when they’re stopped, no one’s going to talk about it. So you only hear about the failure of stopping these attacks. I remember discussing with some British government officials in 2005, after the July 2005 bombing in London, where they [told] a bunch of us that they had stopped so many attacks in London in the previous 20 months, that they can’t admit that one day they won’t be able to stop it.

I don’t want to compare the two. But you have to understand that it’s tough. The next step is the 24-7 media coverage, which is exactly what ISIS wants. And then [you have the] impact — the ripple effect on businesses, airlines, transportation [and] tourists [and] expatriation. People may not want to go to Europe as an expat anymore, given what has happened in Paris and Brussels.

Abrahms: There’s variation between terrorist groups. One area where there’s variation is in the quality of the fighters. To a large extent, the quality of the fighters, like [with] the quality of members of any organization, depends on the screening process for being admitted into the group. In the case of the Islamic State, they have an open-door policy. The leadership is totally indiscriminate about who may be a member, about the targets they can attack, when [they attack], et cetera. And so, it’s a mistake to look at these Islamic State members, and conclude that they must be sophisticated. What’s driving these attacks is the opposite. It’s not the sophistication of the attackers. It’s that manufacturing this type of violence is very, very easy.

My colleague, Erwann, is right. You can just look on the Internet. You can learn that you need to buy large amounts of hair bleach, for example, which could be turned into a bomb. Or you could even just stab people, or set something on fire. [The] Islamic State is different in that regard [from] other terrorist groups. The IRA, for example, could have had a larger membership if it wanted to. But it did vet out people. Even Al Qaeda was pickier. [The] Islamic State is appealing broadly for people to use violence, even locally, any way they want. So we’re dealing with a lot of amateurs here.

Knowledge at Wharton: Is it interesting, though, that the people involved in the bombing at the airport in Brussels … were brothers. People will remember here in the United States that it was brothers that orchestrated the bombing at the Boston Marathon a couple years back.

Abrahms: [Yes], you’re right. There are kinship ties. That’s not uncommon, because terrorists need to worry about their plots being detected. They need to have high levels of trust. They need to make sure that one of them isn’t an informant, and that communications are protected. What better way to do that than through kin?

Another example, equally, is in the San Bernardino attacks. It was impossible for law enforcement to detect that plot and to thwart it. Because this was a couple that, for all we know, was hatching their plan — you know, in bed.

Knowledge at Wharton: Erwann, is that going to be a pattern that we see with the family connections even more? It’s something that these types of groups can feed off of.

Michel-Kerjan: No, [and] Max said it clearly. [Put] yourself in their shoes. If you want to perpetrate some attacks anywhere in the world, you need to go through security, intelligence monitoring, and all that. So the best way to do it is to gather together at the local mosque, and to do that in direct family or extended family — the cousins, the brothers, the sisters, the father. Because you trust each other. If you can keep that as close as a family, obviously, you’re going to be in good shape, unfortunately. That’s not unusual. That hasn’t been unusual in the history of terrorism worldwide. Not just in the past 10 or 15 years, [but] in the past 300 or 400 years. The closer you are, the more likely you are to go undetected, which is priceless for these terrorists.

Abrahms: These social ties are very important in terms of predicting future terrorist attacks. There’s a lot of good terrorism research that exploits social network analysis. One of the biggest predictors that somebody will become a future terrorist is their going out of their way to associate with somebody who’s a known terrorist. There’s probably more predictive value there, than in somebody’s political views or religious identity, et cetera.

Law enforcement doesn’t like to say this, [but] we should expect a certain level of terrorism even in the United States. Luckily, in the United States, it’s [incidence] is still very low. The chances of being killed in a terrorist attack are smaller than almost anything else that we worry about.

Even as the Islamic State gets weaker, even as [its] organization gets battered and is under more and more duress in Iraq and in Syria, the Internet will still exist, and [its] leadership will still be able to appeal to people to commit attacks locally. And there will be vulnerable people and radical people who will respond to this messaging.

But the key is we need to keep the number of ISIS sympathizers in the U.S. very low. That’s the reason why we’ve been so safe. The key to doing that is to cherish our relationship with the American Muslim community, because the American Muslim community overwhelmingly is on the side of law enforcement.

And so we’re not seeing many terrorists come out of the Muslim community [in the U.S.]. When there is somebody who appears to be undergoing radicalization, law enforcement is likely to get a tip. This is why I bristle when I look at what Donald Trump is saying about cracking down on all Muslims. That’s the surest way to generate radicals in that segment of the population.

“If you don’t have a job, if you don’t have financial protection, what do you do with your days? Well, you dream of a different ideal.”–Erwann Michel-Kerjan

Michel-Kerjan: I wanted to come back to [one other matter]. The difficulty that Europe also has is [that] the U.S. has been bouncing back economically much faster than Europe. Europe is still trying to find itself in terms of recovering. [Parts of Europe have] 10% or 15% unemployment, [and] in some areas, the unemployment rate is at 50%, which we don’t have here.

If you don’t have a job, if you don’t have financial protection, what do you do with your days? Well, you dream of a different ideal. ISIS as an organization has to show its members that it’s still strong. [ISIS] cannot do that in Syria the same way [it] could have two years ago. So the quote-unquote marketing campaign of ISIS would be to say, “Well, we can hit hard in the heart of Europe. And look at us, we’re still strong. So forget about what’s happening in Syria. Look, we can hit Paris — an iconic city. [Also], Brussels, and the financial sector.” If London is [a target] next month or in six months [from now], that attracts many people to the organization, unfortunately. It’s viewed as a success in their eyes, which is obviously tragic.

Abrahms: I do think [the economic recovery] is a factor. It certainly increases the risk factors. Belgium is a good example. Northern Africa is also a good example. In Tunisia, for example, there are very high levels of unemployment. In Morocco, there are high levels of unemployment. That creates a fertile environment for recruitment. That fact underscores the limitations of ideology as a recruitment tool. Very often, unemployed youth are attracted to the group because the organization essentially is providing them with something to do with their lives. They’re free. They have nothing going on at home. There aren’t very high opportunity costs. They may be bored. They may want to take an adventure. The messaging, which depicts Islamic State fighters beheading people, for example, shows them with a lot of agency. That message resonates with the unemployed.

Image credit: By Miguel Discart on Flickr :  CC BY-SA 2.0,