I recently returned from a 2-day seminar trip to the NATO headquarters in Brussels, and was there the day the ISIS terrorist attacks struct the Belgian capital.
I always keep my eyes open, but I didn’t expect this. I expected a short visit to a European city, which meant drinking European beer and eating unique Belgian food. The day I arrived in Brussels was just like any other day, highlighted by cold weather and visiting tourist sites. The next morning is when it all felt surreal.
Be careful, they told me. Family, friends, and anyone who knew that I was making a small two day trip to Brussels for a seminar at the NATO headquarters. “Keep your eyes out.”, “Watch out, there’s ISIS around you.” These comments are coming from my Israeli family and friends, and still sounds strange to me now. They never tell me to be careful when I venture out in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem, but when I visit one of the most peaceful European cities, there was a strange reaction.
We heard that there was an explosion at the airport, but none of the locals around us knew what it meant. We, the Israelis, knew exactly what it meant. When we arrived at the NATO headquarters a bit later, we finally knew for sure that it was a terrorist attack. Half an hour later, during one of our lectures, we were told that there was a second attack at a metro station that we had passed on our way to NATO.
Then there was an announcement throughout all of the NATO headquarters. “Following the explosions at the airport and the metro station, the city is now at security level 4. NATO is at code charlie. Unrestricted personnel and general meetings are cancelled.” That is when it truly felt real, and when I felt the difference of a terrorist attack in Israel and one in Europe. I was sitting in arguably one of the safest compounds in Belgium, yet I still felt that nobody in the whole city was prepared for anything like this, unlike Israel.
Every discussion in NATO had shifted from how NATO works to defend member states from other countries, to how terrorism should be the new focus. Although counter-terrorism efforts are handled by every country’s ministry of interiors, there was a clear failure in information sharing and readiness for these kinds of attacks. There was a big takeaway from what was happening, and it became clear that they realized they will have to change sooner, rather than later.
NATO personnel were already feeling the pressure from the attacks that happened in Paris in November, but it was clear on their faces that the attack in Brussels, their European capital, will be the event that will forever change their mission as an organization. If they fail to change and adapt to what is happening, the consequences will be felt. NATO, as an organization that unifies European nations together, must now help unify them under the 21st century threat: domestic terrorism.
I hope that in the 2016 NATO Wales conference, this will become the main topic that will be addressed, just as last year’s conference was mainly about Russia’s actions in Ukraine. The member states adopted a revolutionary assistance plan for those kinds of events, and my hope is that another kind of revolutionary plan will be adopted to increase information sharing and a unifying plan to combat international and domestic terrorism, before it’s too late.
I want to conclude, that the most powerful moment of my whole experience, was when I saw people gathering. It peaked my curiosity, and despite my better judgement, I walked towards the Place de la Bourse, which became the center for paying tributes. I saw people drawing messages on the floor with chalk and hundreds of cameras from news channels. I knew I had to contribute, and wrote my own message.