At least 31 people have been killed and dozens injured in attacks that targeted Brussels international airport and a metro station in the city. Authorities have warned that the death toll is likely to go up in the coming days as many of the injured are in serious condition. The so-called Islamic State (IS) group issued a statement on the IS-linked Amaq agency claiming responsibility for the attack.
Twin blasts targeted Zaventem international airport at about 08:00 local time (07:00 GMT), killing at least 11 people. The Belgian prosecutor has indicated that “probably a suicide bomber” was involved. The state-owned Belga news agency has reported that shots were fired and shouts in Arabic were heard before the two explosions. Some witnesses indicated that after the first blast, people fled only to get caught in the second blast. Public broadcaster VRT has reported that an assault rifle was found next to a dead attacker, with private broadcaster VTM adding that an unexploded bomb belt had been found. The airport is located 11 kilometres (7 miles) northeast of Brussels and last year, it dealt with more than 23 million passengers.
An hour later, shortly after 08:00 GMT, another explosion occurred at Maelbeek metro station during rush hour. The explosion struck the middle carriage of a three-carriage train while it was moving away from the platform. At least 20 people were killed in that attack. The station is located close to a number of European Union (EU) institutions. The European Commission, which is the EU’s executive arm, has told employees to remain indoors or at home. All meetings at EU institutions have been cancelled.
In the wake of the attacks, Belgium raised its terrorism alert to its highest level. Three days of national mourning have been declared. While the airport and the entire public transport system in Brussels is closed, some train stations are due to reopen shortly. All fights have been diverted. Eurostar has cancelled all trains to and from Brussels while the Thalys France-Benelux rain operator has indicated that the entire network is closed.
Across Europe, countries have also quickly reacted to Tuesday’s attacks. In the United Kingdom, security was increased at Gatwick and Heathrow airports, while the Foreign Office has advised British nationals to avoid crowded areas in Belgium. UK Prime Minister David Cameron also chaired a meeting of the Cobra response committee on Tuesday.
In France, officials have stepped up security, while the cabinet held an emergency meeting. French President Francois Hollande held a brief conference, where he stated that “the terrorists have stuck Belgium but it is Europe that was targeted. And it is the whole world that is concerned with this.”
Interpol on Friday warned that accomplices may try to flee across frontiers now that Salah Abdeslam was in custody.
The bombings come just four days after Salah Abdeslam, the main fugitive in the 13 November 2015 attacks in Paris, was seized during a raid in Brussels.
The 26-year-old French national, born in Belgium, spent four months on the run. It is believed that he fled shortly after the November attacks, returning to the Molenbeek district of Brussels. Investigators believe that he helped with logistics, including renting rooms and driving suicide bombers to the Stade de France. He was arrested 500 m from his home in Molenbeek. His brother, Brahim, was one of the Paris attackers who blew himself up.
Friday’s raid came after Abdeslam’s fingerprints were found in a flat in another Brussels district, Forest, which was raided on Tuesday.
On 20 March, Belgian Foreign minister Didier Reynders suggested that Abdeslam was preparing attacks in Brussels before he was arrested. Paris prosecutor Francois Molins also told reporters on Saturday that Abdeslam had admitted that he wanted to blow himself up during the Paris attacks but then changed his mind. Abdeslam is being interrogated in Belgium following his arrest in Brussels on Friday. Mr Reynders citied information that he said had come to light since Abdeslam’s arrest. He disclosed that Abdeslam “…was ready to restart something in Brussels…And its maybe the reality because we have found a lot of weapons, heavy weapons, in the first investigations and we have found a new network around him in Brussels.” Mr Reynders further disclosed that the number of suspects had risen markedly since the November attacks in Paris, adding “we are sure for the moment we have found more than 30 people involved in the terrorist attacks in Paris, but we are sure there are others.” Belgian authorities have charged Abdeslam with terrorism offenses. He is being held at a high-security jail in the Belgian city of Bruges. Abdeslam is now fighting extradition to France, which could take up to three months.
Another man arrested at the same time as Abdeslam on Friday, Monir Ahmed Alaaj, has also been charged with participation in terrorist murder and the activities of a terrorist group. Prosecutors have disclosed that Alaaj, who was injured during Friday’s arrests, had travelled with Abdeslam to Germany last October, where his fingerprints were taken during an identity check
While European security experts have been braced for another attack for months, such attacks continue to have a huge shock when it actually happens. If Tuesday’s attack in Brussels is what many have termed “revenge” for Friday’s arrest of Salah Abdeslam, it will be a source of great concern of authorities in the country as a functioning terrorist network was able to respond so quickly with such devastating effect. Over the weekend, Abdeslam’s lawyer disclosed that he was cooperating with Belgian authorities. It is therefore possible that a cell linked to Abdeslam brought forward the timing of a future attack in the believe that he might blow their cover. Either way, this attack shows how advanced the planning was in terms of logistics, explosives, weapons and people willing to carry out such attacks on civilian targets. Furthermore, while the priority of Belgian officials will now be to ensure that anyone else who poses an imminent threat to the public is apprehended as soon as possible, it is evident that Brussels is seen as a soft target in a county that continues to have huge gaps in intelligence.