Tragedy in Belgium

Caitlin McLaren - 3T Chemical
Posted on: March 30, 2016

On March 18th, a piece of good news began to circulate: Salah Abdeslam, one of the organizers of the Paris attacks last year, had finally been captured after four months in hiding. He was tracked down and shot by police in Brussels. However, there were immediate worries about retaliatory attacks, and four days later, those fears came true.

On the morning of March 22nd, two nail bombs went off at Brussels Airport. A third was later found and detonated in a controlled explosion. Immediately afterwards, Belgium went to the highest terror threat level, but mere minutes later another suicide bomber hit the Maalbeek metro station. In the attacks, more than 30 people were killed and several hundred injured. Belgium declared three days of national mourning, and many around the world mourned with them.

The attackers—identified as brothers Khalid and Ibrahim el-Bakraoui, and Najim Laachraoui, all Belgian nationals of Moroccan heritage—had connections to terrorism and to ISIL; they were suspected to belong to the same terrorist cell that carried out the Paris attacks, but had evaded capture during the raids where Abdeslam was apprehended. ISIL immediately claimed responsibility for the attacks.

CCTV footage showed an unidentified man in a light-colored coat and a hat accompanying Laachraoui and Ibrahim el-Bakraoui at the airport; that man remains at large. Fayçal Cheffou, a freelance journalist, was arrested on suspicion that he was the man in the footage, but he was soon released due to lack of evidence. He is still suspected of terrorist activity. Several other suspects were also arrested.

In the wake of the attacks, Belgian authorities received a great deal of criticism for failing to arrest the bombers earlier. All of the attackers were known criminals and suspected terrorists; Ibrahim Bakraoui had been arrested in Turkey and deported on suspicion of terrorism last year, and Khalid actually had a warrant out for his arrest since he had rented a house where two of the Paris attackers had been staying. Meanwhile, Laachraoui was not only implicated in the Paris attacks—his DNA was found on the suicide vests used—but he was also known to have travelled to Syria back in 2013. At the time, he had been removed from the voters list, but the authorities took no further steps. Meanwhile, in the apartment rented by the Bakraoui brothers, the chemical smell was so strong that neighbours had repeatedly called the police, who did not investigate. As these dots were connected after the bombings, Belgium’s Interior Minister, Jan Jambon, and Justice Minister, Koen Geens, offered to resign; however, Prime Minister Charles Michel did not accept their resignations.

While it is easy to criticize after the fact, and it may be justified and useful for the future, it does not change the situation for the victims. There are 32 known dead, more than 60 critically injured, and hundreds more with lesser injuries. The attack was the deadliest in Belgium’s history, and many of the casualties were from countries other than Belgium.

The Brussels Airport has still not re-opened at the time of writing. It will be a long time before things go back to normal, both in Belgium and around the world.