PARIS — As explosions rocked the airport and the metro in Brussels this morning, fears grew that the threat of terrorism is morphing into the threat of guerrilla war in Europe.
The attacks, which killed more than 20 people, came four days after the arrest in Brussels of Salah Abdeslam, a member of the terrorist cell that attacked Paris cafés, a sports stadium, and a concert hall in November, slaughtering 130 people. On Sunday, the Belgian foreign minister warned that Abdeslam was planning a new attack.
Some reports suggest that this attack, clearly coordinated in the style of the Paris carnage, was what was in the works, and went ahead without Abdeslam. It was known that at least two of his associates were still on the run. ISIS claimed responsibility for the attacks.
French Prime Minister Manuel Valls said it was clear Europe was no longer simply the victim of a series of isolated terror attacks. “We have been subjected for the last few months in Europe to acts of war,” he said. “We are at war.”
As French scholar Gilles Kepel has pointed out, the self-proclaimed Islamic State, or ISIS, which carried out the Paris attacks and which presumably was involved in today’s bombings, is following a playbook written more than a decade ago: The Call for an International Islamic Resistance by Abu Musab al Suri, a Syrian jihadi.
Suri knew Europe well. He had lived for a while in Britain, in the community of Arab and Muslim exiles there. His core idea was that Muslims in the West, though increasingly numerous, felt themselves isolated and under pressure, and this could be exploited to create a breakdown of society, develop insurgency, and launch a civil war where the forces of Islam eventually would be victorious.
Acts of terror, dubbed “resistance,” would heighten the already existing “Islamophobia,” and “exacerbate the contradictions,” as communist revolutionaries used to say, until hatred and suspicion ran high and integration became impossible.
Since the Nov. 13 atrocities, that process has been taking shape, with increased resentment and fear linked to the coincidental mass influx of refugees from the Middle East. Indeed, the impact of these atrocities has reached the United States political scene and has been exploited extensively by presidential candidate Donald Trump.
Today’s attack began near the check-in desks at Brussels Airport. Two explosions in the departure hall killed at least 13 people and injured more than 30 others. The public prosecutor in Brussels has confirmed that one of those two blasts was detonated by a suicide bomber.
Video footage from the scene showed chaos as survivors scrambled to safety. Zach Mouzoun, who had just arrived at the airport on a flight, told local television that the second explosion cracked pipes, mixing water with victims’ blood as the ceiling fell in. “It was atrocious. The ceilings collapsed,” he said. “There was blood everywhere, injured people, bags everywhere.”
“We were walking in the debris. It was a war scene,” he said.
Anna Nelson, an American citizen, had just arrived at the airport on a flight from Washington, D.C., when the explosives were detonated. The first she knew of it was someone yelling: "Run!"
“Hundreds of people started running in the same direction,” she told The Daily Beast.
There was an order to evacuate the airport over the loudspeaker, but the exit was blocked by emergency crews. Eventually they made their way outside where shocked crowds traded what they’d heard from security officials. "There was a man wandering around with blood on his face, hands, and clothes. Windows of a tower were visibly blown out and as the hours went by, more and more heavily armed police arrived,” she said.
“We were told by a security guard that explosives had been found in the toilets. We heard the roof had collapsed and there were body parts everywhere near the check in area, especially near the area where a flight to the U.S. would have checked in.”
Soon after the airport was hit, a bomb blast interrupted the morning commute at Maalbeek metro station, which is close to the headquarters of the European Union and NATO. Belgian subway officials said 15 people were killed and an additional 55 injured in the subterranean attack.
Brussels shut down public access to its entire rail and air transport networks and raised the terror threat level to its highest. “What we feared has happened, we were hit by blind attacks,” said the Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel.
Multiple U.S. and European officials in Brussels last weekend said they had been warned by their security and intelligence teams of the possibility of a follow-on attack in retaliation for the arrest of Paris fugitive Salah Abdesalam.
Officials were in town for the German Marshall Fund’s Brussels forum, where Foreign Minister Didier Reynders said they’d discovered Abdesalam had stockpiled weapons and built a new network to launch potential violence, news that chilled the already tense city even as officials there celebrated capturing the terror suspect alive after a four-month manhunt.
“He was ready to start something from Brussels,” Reynders told officials and diplomats Sunday.
“We found a lot of weapons, heavy weapons in the first investigations, and we have seen a new network of people around him in Brussels,” the minister said, adding that they’d been searching for 10 people, but found more than 30 people connected to the Paris attacks.
The fear was that reports from the Belgian prosecutor that Abdesalam was talking freely to Belgian interrogators would prompt them to move up their timetable for violence.
U.S. intelligence and military officials believe that up to 1,500 foreign fighters from Syria have returned to Europe over the past 5 years, with some setting up cells to carry out ISIS-directed or -inspired attacks at a time of their choosing.
While there had been security throughout the city, both visible police and military presence, a Daily Beast reporter noticed little or no security at the main terminal of the airport Monday morning.
Mubin Shaikh, a Canadian terrorism expert, said it was inevitable that ISIS cells in Belgium would rush into an attack once Abdeslam had been captured
“They were compromised because that guy got caught, and he was singing like a canary,” he told The Daily Beast. “Those people realized: ‘It’s now or never. We need to do it now.’”
“ISIS has declared war against Europe and the world, and it’s going to mobilize people it has in any country,” he said. “[With] the number of jihadis that Belgium has, not just in house but in Iraq and Syria, this is exactly what to expect.”
Whether or not it was directly linked to Abdesalam’s arrest, U.S. intelligence officials said that early signs pointed to ISIS as being the likely culprit of the attacks.
The bombings “bear all the hallmarks of an ISIS-inspired, or ISIS-coordinated, attack,” Rep. Adam Schiff, the senior Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said in a statement. “Europe is facing a real threat from the thousands who have traveled abroad to Syria and Iraq to train with ISIS, and have returned home. It is enormously difficult to track all of them, or defend soft targets like those attacked in Brussels and previously in Paris,” Schiff said.
Additional reporting by Kimberly Dozier in Brussels, Katie Zavadski in New York, and Shane Harris in Washington, D.C.