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Belgians' Worst Fears Realized After Months On High Terror Alert

The Huffington Post The Huffington Post 22/03/2016 Charlotte Alfred

Belgium was left reeling on Tuesday after two attacks targeting the airport and a subway station in the capital killed at least 34 people and left nearly 200 wounded. In a message distributed via the news agency Amaq, the self-described Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attacks.

Belgium was already on high alert after a key suspect in November’s Paris attacks was captured in Brussels last week, raising questions as to whether the city could have foreseen and prevented Tuesday’s tragedy.

“Hate and extremism have hit in Brussels,” said the city’s mayor, Yvan Mayeur. “This is an attack against the values of freedom and democracy, against the humanism that we value so much in Brussels.”

Antwerp Mayor Bart De Wever called Tuesday “the darkest day in the history of our country since WWII.”

“We are determined to defend our freedom,” Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel said, announcing three days of national mourning.

HOW THE ATTACKS UNFOLDED

A little past 8 a.m. local time Tuesday, several massive explosions rocked the crowded departure hall of Brussels Airport. Parts of the building's ceiling collapsed after two suicide bombers detonated belts near check-in counters.

The blasts killed at least 14 people and left more than 80 wounded, local media reported .

Witnesses said many of the victims suffered injuries in their legs. "I helped carry out five people dead, their legs destroyed," airport worker Alphonse Youla told Reuters.

"I heard an enormous explosion, then I saw the airport roof come down," a trembling young Korean tourist told HuffPost Italy while dragging his luggage behind him. "We started running, then they sent us all out. It was horrible.”

Among the injured are least three Mormon missionaries from Utah, the church said. The mother of 20-year-old Joseph Empey told The Huffington Post that her son was wounded, but recovering.

“He’s got injuries and waiting to go into surgery, but he’s doing great, and we feel really awful for so many injured,” Amber Hempey, 41, said. “He happens to be a lucky one and we’re pretty grateful.”

A round 9 a.m., a third bomb tore through a subway car in Brussels' Maalbeek station. The metro station is close to both the European Union headquarters and U.S. Embassy and trains were packed because of the morning commute.

Abdel MelloulIt was working near the subway station when the blasts went off. “It was terrible,” he told Belgian newspaper De Standaard. “I saw people who were completely burnt, there was a lot of blood.”

ISIS said in its statement that its fighters had opened fire in the airport before detonating suicide belts, while another suicide bomb attacked the subway station. However, Belgian  officials don't believe a suicide bomber was at work in the Maalbeek station, according to VRT news .

According to the Associated Press, sources told an Iraqi official that the Islamic State had been planning attacks targeting airports and train stations in Europe for months. The official told the AP that militants moved their plans to Brussels after Paris attack suspect Salah Abdeslam was arrested.

Amid a rapidly developing situation, Belgian officials confirmed on Tuesday that a Kalashnikov firearm was found near the body of a suicide bomber, but disputed that the victims in the airport were hit by gunfire. They confirmed that another bomb was later found in the airport.

Authorities are looking to confirm the identities of three possible suspects caught on camera at the airport. In images released by police, the three unidentified men are pushing trollies with suitcases past the airport’s check-in area. One is wearing white while the two others are each wearing one black glove and black clothing.

Authorities believe at least one suspect in the attacks remains on the run. Agents conducted raids across the country on Tuesday, according to Belgium’s federal prosecutor.

NO SURPRISE

Tuesday’s attacks hit the heart of Europe, but Brussels’ vulnerability to terrorism came as no surprise.

Brussels been on edge since radical Islamic militants killed 130 people in Paris in November. ISIS also claimed responsibility for that attack.

Belgium -- which has French-, Flemish- and German-speaking areas -- has a notoriously dysfunctional government. Brussels, for example, has six different police districts. Language barriers and political infighting abound in all levels of governance. These political divisions and institutional complexity also impede the ability of security services to handle complex counterterror operations. 

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Several of the terrorists involved in the Paris attacks had lived in Belgium. The probe into the attacks revealed at even during the assaults, the terrorists had been in constant contact with a phone in the country, indicating that at least part of the planning had occurred there.

Abdeslam, the most-wanted suspect in the Paris attacks, was known to have crossed back into Belgium mere hours after they took place. Worried he might detonate a suicide vest, Belgian authorities put the capital on lockdown at the time.

WARNING SIGNS

The role of Belgians in the Paris carnage highlighted what was already known in security circles across the country -- that Belgium is home to a significant number of Islamist extremists and that some of them are connected to militant cells across Europe. In particular, it turned the spotlight on Molenbeek, a neighborhood in Brussels that became known internationally as a hotbed of violent Islamic extremism after the Paris violence.

French officials criticized Belgian counterterrorism for failing to detect the attack . "The Belgians just aren't up to it," a former French intelligence official told local press. Security experts also cautioned that the Paris attacks exposed gaps in coordination between different European security services. 

European police officials have long pointed to Belgium as "the weakest link in the chain," Brian Levin, head of California State University's Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism, told HuffPost. Belgian intelligence gathering "significantly lagged" behind other Western countries until recently, he said.

The events in Paris also raised questions as to why previous assaults hadn’t lead to more forceful reactions from the security services.

On May 24, 2014, French national Mehdi Nemouche opened fire in the Jewish museum, killing four people. In June 2015, Moroccon Ayoub El Khazzani boarded a Thalys train in Brussels and tried to open fire on passengers aboard.

TENSIONS RISE

The tensions in Brussels heightened this week as forces closed in on, and finally captured, Abdeslam.

Belgian police raided an apartment in the city's Forest neighborhood last Tuesday, looking for clues on the Paris attack fugitives’ locations. They believed the apartment was empty, and were taken by surprise when inhabitants opened fire, wounding four officers.

Mohamed Belkaid, a 35-year-old Algerian suspected of aiding the Paris attacks , was killed in the raid. Belgian officials said at least two suspects fled the scene . Police found weapons, ammunition and an ISIS flag at the scene, as well as the DNA of Abdeslam, who was previously thought to be in Syria.

Abdeslam was finally captured  on Friday, after a four-month manhunt. Police tracked his location using cell phone data and descended on an apartment in the Molenbeek neighborhood -- just 300 meters from the home he grew up in.

The 26-year-old Frenchman was charged with “participation in terrorist murder” the following day, as was Monir Ahmed Alaaj, another suspect captured in the raid who has used the alias Amine Choukri.

Belgian Foreign Minister Didier Reynders said after Abdeslam’s capture that the militant had planned more attacks in Brussels , and that authorities were still hunting for further suspects. Belgium said Mohamed Abrini and Najim Laachraoui, Abdeslam’s associates, remain on the run.

It’s too early to tell whether Abdeslam or any of the Paris suspects are connected with the perpetrators of Tuesday’s attack, Belgium's federal prosecutor said.

UNPREPARED

The attacks refocus attention on concerns about the Belgian security services’ ability to counteract terrorist threats.

The challenge is particularly difficult -- and urgent -- in Belgium. Out of the tens of thousands of foreign fighters that have joined jihadist groups in the Middle East -- many joining the Islamic State -- Belgium is the European nation that exports the highest number of militants per capita.  

Belgium’s outsized number of foreign fighters dwarfs other Western countries. In total, experts estimate that up to 562 Belgians have at one point been foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq and over 80 have died there. The largest group of these fighters came from Brussels. Official government numbers are slightly lower, stating there have been up to 500 Belgian foreign fighters. 

The Muslim population in Belgian is a "much more cohesive, segregated and radicalized community" than Muslim populations in the U.S., Levin explained. This provides a network of both active and passive support for extremists like Abdeslam and allows them "to hide in plain sight," he said.

"Abdesalam has been in hiding for four months, and there has been a cell that is operational with sophisticated weapons, so there’s a network that gives them everything from refuge, to know-how, to communication and wealth," he said. "I think we’re going to see as this unravels a network that was more vast in Belgium and elsewhere in Europe than authorities have previously thought."

The Belgian government, as well as security analysts in the European Union and United Nations, have repeatedly expressed concerned about the potential threat that the country’s foreign fighters could pose. In October, a working group of experts at the U.N. urged Belgium to engage all sectors of its society in order to address the problem.

Several former U.S. and European counterterrorism officials told NBC News that Tuesday’s attacks, coming so soon after Abdeslam’s captured, suggested a “shocking” level of unpreparedness by Belgian authorities.  

“What we feared has happened,” Michel, the prime minister, said Tuesday.

Matt Ferner, Alana Horowitz Satlin, Nick Robins-Early and Willa Frej contributed reporting.

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For additional coverage in French, visit Le Huffington Post and their live blog ; For coverage in German, visit HuffPost Germany ; For coverage in Spanish, visit HuffPost Spain ; For coverage in Arabic, visit HuffPost Arabi .  

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