Belgium Hunts Jihadists That Struck Heart of a Fraying Europe

Belgian Police Hunt for Bomber as New Details Emerge
  • Bombings kill at least 31 people, injure more than 230
  • Latest trauma for EU already convulsed over borders, refugees

Belgian security forces are hunting down the perpetrators of Tuesday’s terrorist attacks on Brussels -- the worst in the country’s history and a symbolic strike that may widen divisions within the European Union. 

Special forces raided homes in the Brussels suburb of Schaerbeek after separate bombings at the city’s airport and on the metro killed at least 31 people and left more than 230 injured. Authorities are searching for one of three men filmed on closed-circuit TV wheeling baggage carts at the airport, with the Belgian government saying others may be on the run. The other two likely carried out suicide attacks, officials said.


In Pictures: Brussels Rocked by Deadly Blasts

Blasts ripped through the departures hall at Brussels Zaventem airport and a city center Metro station, causing more than 30 deaths and many injuries.


The synchronized explosions -- claimed by Islamist State -- targeted the core of the European Union at a time when a deluge of refugees from the Middle East is testing the bloc’s dedication to open borders and stirring up anti-foreigner rhetoric. The attacks, along the lines of the November killings in Paris, dramatized the need for a coordinated European response to terrorism, while stoking populist anger that makes such a reaction harder to achieve.

“There is a growing perception among European public opinion that EU leaders are not in control of the continent’s terrorist threat,” Mujtaba Rahman, a former EU official who is now director of European analysis at the Eurasia Group in London, said in a note to clients. “This will in turn put more pressure on incumbent governments and limit their space for policy action to address Europe’s multiple crises.”

Map of Brussels attacks
Map of Brussels attacks
Bloomberg

Belgian authorities searching the neighborhood of Schaerbeek -- not far from where November’s Paris attacks are said to have been planned -- found a nail bomb, chemical products and an Islamic State flag. The country was put on the highest alert level.

“There may be other individuals on the run today,” Belgian Foreign Minister Didier Reynders told RTL TV. “We feared it would happen in Brussels and it did.”

Images of a smashed-up airport lobby, a smoldering metro station and blood-soaked bodies flashed around the world within minutes of the attacks, which follow hard on the heels of similar atrocities in Paris, Istanbul and Ankara over the past 14 months. 

Islamic State claimed responsibility. In a statement, it promised "dark days" for countries allied against the group, adding that future attacks will be "harder and more bitter."

CCTV footage provided by Belgian police of the suspects.
CCTV footage provided by Belgian police of the suspects.
Source: Belgian Federal Police

Refugee Wave

The assaults took place just down the street from where EU leaders last week struck a deal with Turkey to address the region’s biggest refugee wave since World War II, many of them fleeing the civil war in Syria. The busy subway line is used by Belgian commuters, schoolchildren, tourists and bureaucrats from all over Europe -- a cross-section of the global community.

The risks are palpable for the future of passport-free travel within 26 European countries, seven of which have already partly reinstated border checks. Even as police sifted through body parts and shredded suitcases at the airport departure hall, the Brussels murders roiled European politics.

In Britain, Prime Minister David Cameron criticized the anti-immigration U.K. Independence Party for exploiting the assaults to make the case for Britain to leave the EU, a decision voters will make in a June referendum that polls suggest will be a close call. German Chancellor Angela Merkel is fighting opponents within her own government pushing her to back away from her open-door policy for asylum seekers.

Passengers evacuate the airport.
Passengers evacuate the airport.
Photographer: Sylvain Lefevre/Getty Images

In a rare joint statement, EU leaders -- still at odds over refugees and how to stimulate the economy -- expressed solidarity with Belgium and said they’re “determined to face this threat together with all necessary means.”

“The perpetrators are the enemies of all of the values that Europe stands for today and which we uphold together as members of the European Union,” Merkel said in Berlin.

The timing, only four days after the arrest in Brussels of Salah Abdeslam -- believed to be the only surviving perpetrator of the Paris massacres -- was a brazen signal of the unrelenting threat Europe faces even with some terrorist operatives behind bars. The attack also shows the vulnerability of open societies such as Belgium, where authorities have been on alert since the slaughter in the French capital after the discovery that some of the suspects had lived in Brussels.

Social Affairs Minister Maggie De Block estimated that 11 died at the airport, while Brussels Mayor Yvan Mayeur put the subway death toll at around 20. The government’s crisis center said about 230 were injured.

Brussels Lockdown

Brussels returned to the same type of lockdown that accompanied a heightened state of alert for several days after the Paris attacks. Belgian officials urged people to stay where they were and to communicate via social media to avoid putting excess strain on already overloaded mobile phone networks. Car and truck access to Brussels was curbed and some tunnels were shut.

Access roads and rail lines were halted to the airport, in the suburb of Zaventem, about 15 kilometers (9 miles) from central Brussels. The airport was closed Wednesday as crews assess the damage. The city’s transit authority, which had earlier suspended its entire subway, tram and bus network, announced that some bus routes and at least one tram would start running in the evening.

Memorial in Brussels.
Memorial in Brussels.
Photographer: Geert Vanden Wijngaert/AP Photo

“People ask me if I’m scared,” said Agnieszka Lukaszczyk, 35, who works at the European Commission in a building close to the Maelbeek station. “I’m not scared actually, I’m just very sad, very angry and I feel hopeless, and that is the worst -- the hopelessness.”

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