Tuesday, March 22, 2016

The Islamic State Claims Responsibility for the Brussels Attacks
By James McAuley, Michael Birnbaum and Brian Murphy
March 22 at 2:33 PM
BRUSSELS — Three terrorist blasts rocked the Belgian capital Tuesday, leaving more than 30 people dead at the Brussels airport and a metro station and striking fear in the heart of the European Union just days after a manhunt captured a key suspect in last year’s Paris massacres.

The Islamic State asserted responsibility for the attacks, according to a statement posted on the Amaq Agency, a website believed to be close to the extremist group. The message said Belgium was targeted for its participation in an international coalition battling the Islamic State.

If the Islamic State link is confirmed, it would mark another deadly strike less than a week after a suicide blast in Istanbul that killed five people, two them with dual American-Israeli citizenship.

Belgian police released surveillance images of three men pushing luggage carts at the Brussels airport. They asked for help in identifying one man dressed in white, who they said was on the loose. Local reports said police believe that the other two men died in the explosions.

The apparently coordinated explosions in Brussels — including at least one by a suicide bomber at the airport — created a renewed sense of threat that spilled far beyond Brussels, as authorities boosted police patrols in cities such as Paris, London and Washington.

The latest bloodshed — at least 32 dead and more than 200 injured — made clear that European capitals remain perilously vulnerable despite attempts to dismantle the militant network that perpetrated the worst terrorist attack in Paris in generations last November.

In Washington, State Department spokesman John Kirby said U.S. citizens are among the injured, but he would not say how many. So far, no Americans are known to have died in the attacks, although that information may change, he said.

Among the Americans wounded were a service member and his family, who “were caught up in this tragedy,” the U.S. European Command said. In a House hearing on Capitol Hill, Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R.-N.J.) said six Americans were injured in the attacks, including military family members.

The bloodshed also raised fears of further reprisal attacks for the arrest last week of the fugitive suspect whom authorities have linked to a Brussels-based cell accused of masterminding the Paris attacks.

Europe has struggled with apparent spillover from the churning conflict in Syria. Thousands of European citizens have traveled there to fight in a war that has become a focal point for jihadists around the world. Some have returned radicalized to Europe.

Belgian leaders said they were contending with the worst attack on their soil since World War II.

“What we had feared has happened,” said Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel. “This is a black moment for our country.”

The Belgian Interior Ministry said that the subway blast killed 20 and wounded about 130. The attack at the airport killed 12 and wounded 100. It warned that the numbers were still provisional. Among those injured at the airport were three Mormon missionaries from Utah, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints said in a statement.

Even before the purported claim of responsibility by the Islamic State, other European leaders wasted no time in referencing other attacks by Islamist militants. “We are at war,” said French Prime Minister Manuel Valls.

“We have been subjected for the last few months in Europe to acts of war,” he added.

Belgian federal prosecutor Frederic Van said that multiple raids were taking place around the country, and a number of people were also being questioned. Several other explosions heard around the Belgian capital, he explained, were the product of bomb disposal squads “making safe” suspicious packages.

Leeuw said Belgian authorities were aware and investigating the Islamic State’s claim of responsibility. But, he added, “it is too soon to already make a link with the attacks that took place in Paris.”

Hours earlier, Leeuw said the city had come under “terrorist attacks.” At least one of the airport blasts was carried out by a suicide bomber, he said.

In Havana, at the end of a landmark trip, President Obama urged “the world to unite” to fight terrorism, and he pledged to “do whatever is necessary” to aid the investigation in Belgium.

Belgian leaders warned that the Brussels perpetrators may still be at large, and Brussels was largely shut down for most of the day.

Feeding fears that the danger has not subsided, Belgian media reported that security forces conducted raids around the capital, but then said that law enforcement agencies had asked them to stop reporting on the raids to avoid tipping off suspects.

The attacks started just before 8 a.m. Brussels time, when one blast ripped through the departure hall of the Brussels airport, followed shortly by another one near the other end of the terminal, where people had already started to run for cover.

The blasts collapsed ceilings in the departure hall, sent passengers fleeing and left pools of blood amid splintered signs and abandoned luggage.

On an outside walkway, people ran for cover: men swinging briefcases, travelers lugging backpacks, a woman cradling an infant. Later, airport spokeswoman Florence Muls said a third bomb was deactivated, the Associated Press reported.

Just over an hour after the airport blasts, another explosion tore open a subway car at the bustling Maelbeek metro station, where European Union diplomats, government employees and other international workers routinely crisscross on their way to work. The explosion happened near the end of the morning rush hour, when many subway trains are packed with commuters.

The station was clogged with smoke as panicked people streamed onto the streets and rescue workers raced toward the mayhem.

The attacks came just four days after French and Belgian leaders celebrated the capture of Salah Abdeslam, 26, believed to be the lone fugitive participant in the Paris attacks. Abdeslam was discovered hiding in a Brussels apartment building in the Molenbeek neighborhood near the center of the city.

Amateur video taken immediately after the airport attack showed streams of panicked passengers running out of the airport. Large clouds of smoke billowed from the blown-out windows of the main terminal building.

“We saw a few people injured. We saw the glass front of the building had exploded, glass flying around,” said Daniela Schwarzer, head of the Berlin office of the German Marshall Fund of the United States, who was leaving Brussels after a weekend conference and was in a taxi approaching the terminal when the explosions ripped through the airport.

The Brussels airport said it would remain closed at least through Wednesday. Airport leaders said that a third bomb had been located and detonated at the airport in the afternoon.

The fallout immediately spread across Europe and beyond, displaying the increased worries and security cooperation since November’s Paris attacks that killed 130 people.

French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said that an additional 1,600 people were deployed in France and that security was boosted at border posts and major transportation hubs.

“Through the attacks in Brussels, all of Europe is hit,” French President François Hollande wrote on Twitter. On social media, an image soon appeared: a figure draped in the colors of the French flag embracing another tearful figure in the black, yellow and red of Belgium’s banner.

London and other cities, including New York and Washington, also put additional police on the streets. The FBI and other U.S. agencies opened channels with Belgian officials to assist in the investigation.

At the news conference in Jordan, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, choked back tears at a news conference after learning of the Brussels attacks.

Amid the crisis, some basic Belgian utilities appeared to be under stress. Belgium’s official crisis center called on Brussels residents to avoid streaming video and music to avoid taxing the Internet. It asked people to communicate by text message or social network, rather than voice calls, so as not to overload phone lines.

One Belgian leader said that Tuesday was the grimmest day for Belgium in more than 70 years.

“We are experiencing the darkest day in the history of our country since the Second World War,” said Bart de Wever, mayor of Antwerp and the leader of Belgium’s largest political party, the Flemish nationalist Vlaams Belang.

Belgian leaders may come in for criticism that they did not adequately position themselves for attacks after Abdeslam’s capture Friday. At the time, they left the security threat unchanged. Only after the attacks did Belgian leaders immediately raise the threat level to its highest, which calls for increased deployments of police and military across the country.

Belgium, a nation riven by ethnic rivalries among French, Dutch and German speakers, has struggled particularly hard to address radicalization in its cities. A complex patchwork of security and police agencies is responsible for keeping an eye on potential threats. Many of them view each other as rivals rather than as colleagues.

Still, security analysts said that attacks on unsecured, high-traffic targets such as subway stations are extremely hard to defend against — even when authorities are focused on foiling such plots.

“This is a kind of scenario every capital in Europe feared since the November attacks last year. A mixture of foreign fighters coming back with experience, local sympathizers on the other hand,” said Rik Coolsaet, a terrorism expert at Ghent University who has advised the Belgian government on how to fight radicalization. “You have such a large number of soft targets, and you cannot secure all of them.”

Birnbaum reported from Moscow and Murphy from Washington. Souad Mekhennet in Düsseldorf, Germany, Daniela Deane and Karla Adam in London, Anthony Faiola in Brussels and Carol Morello and Matt Zapotosky in Washington contributed to this report.

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