Tuesday, March 22, 2016

22-Mar-16: Belgium's focus on Europe-based jihad just rose several notches

Candles and flowers are laid in tribute to the victims - outside the
Brussels stock exchange today [Image Source]
Just four days after Friday's arrest of an Islamist terrorist, Saleh Abdeslam, in Brussels, the city has found itself in the midst of serious drama... just as the Belgian government says (but only now admits) it expected.

Two massive explosions - one at the main international airport of Brussels at Zaventem a couple of minutes before 8:00 am, and a third in the Maelbeek subway station in the heart of the city a minute or two after 9:00 am -completely paralyzed the Belgian capital today.

At the time we are writing this, the updated count of losses [quoting "Explosions at Brussels Airport and Subway Kill 34", New York Times, today] is that 34 people are killed - 14 at the airport and 20 in the subway station. Many more are injured in the two attacks: more than 90 at the airport and more than 100 in the subway. Reports speak of children, of amputated limbs, of severe burns, and of the likelihood that the numbers will grow.

In the several hours that have passed since the first reports, the local authorities have gathered enough information to confidently define these as terror attacks. Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel, whom we mentioned here just a few days ago ["19-Mar-16: An arrest in Belgium sharpens the focus on Europe-based jihad"] spoke earnestly into national television cameras today, calling the attacks “blind, violent and cowardly.”

The impact on Belgium is wide and ongoing.
  • From various reports, we see that Brussels' public transport system is shut down and the entire city is in a kind of lock-down state with residents being told to “stay where you are”, evidently via a government-authorized Twitter message. 
  • Eurostar canceled all trains between Brussels and London. Thalys high-speed trains linking dozens of cities in Belgium, France, Germany and the Netherlands were suspended [NY Times]
  • Deputy Prime Minister Alexander De Croo has said Belgians should avoid making calls so that the city’s mobile network would not be as saturated as they evidently are, and to communicate via online messages instead. 
  • Belgium's federal prosecutor, Frédéric Van Leeuw, says border controls have been strengthened and extra police officers had been mobilized. 
  • Belgium’s official terror threat status was raised from three to four - the highest possible value. 
  • Telegraph UK reports that the Belgian foreign minister Didier Reynders expressed a concern that additional parties responsible for the killings today are still at large. 
There are, predictably, ripple effects that have not yet run their course.
  • All flights into and out of the airport were cancelled right after the attack. An El Al flight from Tel Aviv to Brussels was diverted to another airport in mid-flight. 
  • Staff at Belgium's nuclear power stations have been asked to leave the sites "for their own safety" [Telegraph UK today]. It appears, according to the same source, that several people "were recently caught using a hidden camera to monitor movements at the home of a leading Belgium nuclear research executive. The development suggested that terrorists were preparing to kidnap him in order to gain access to nuclear materials or to get into a power plant." There's another concern: "The explosion of a radioactive so-called dirty bomb is one of the chief fears of the security services and was thought to be a little outlandish until the discovery in Belgium."
  • President Barack Obama said this afternoon: "We can and we will defeat those who threaten the safety and security of people all around the world." His Secretary of State, John Kerry, has told Belgium via his spokesperson on Twitter: "We are ready to support the investigation as appropriate." And "The United States stands with the people of Belgium." Donald Trump has said today that France and Belgium and other parts of Europe are "literally disintegrating". He predicts "many more" attacks. "In my opinion this is just the beginning, it's going to get worse and worse," he told Fox News. He reiterated his pledge to shut down America's border to Muslims "until we figure out what is going on... There's something going on. They're not assimilating into society, and there's something different," he said. "It's not our fault, it's their fault," he added, referring to Muslims." [Telegraph UK, today]
  • Mr Trump placed some of the blame for the attacks on "no-go zones" in France and Belgium where, he said, police are afraid to enter
  • France's president Francois Hollande said the Brussels savagery struck at "the whole of Europe" [AFP, today]. In a NY Times report, he says "Through the Brussels attacks, it is the whole of Europe that is hit". France ordered 1,600 additional police officers to patrol its borders, train stations, airports and ports. The Eiffel Tower will be lit with the colors of Belgium’s flag tonight.
  • Pope Francis expressed his condolences [AFP]. The attacks, he said, are "blind violence, which causes so much suffering".
A handful of observations now about the way parts of the media are dealing with the harsh realities:
  • Over at the BBC where using the word "terror" in news reports of jihadist barbarism of the sort that plagues our lives here is strictly controlled and mostly avoided [see "7-Aug-13: Political prisoners, political media"], it appears to have been a tumultuous day. Their lead story this morning appeared around 9:00 am London time under the heading "Brussels Zaventem airport and metro explosions 'kill at least 13'" [archived here], and had no mention of the word "terror". We and others noticed and criticized via Twitter which normally has little effect. Today however, some two hours later and with no fanfare or explanation, the same article (with the same URL) was given a new headline: "Brussels explosions: Many dead in airport and metro terror attacks" [archived here]. Fittingly, it calls the attacks terror - as it should.
  • And confronted with the hideous horror of the pitiless bombings of ordinary people traveling places, a reporter ("mostly", he says) for The Times of London and The Economist tweets: "One of the ugliest rituals after any attack in Europe is the chorus of "we told you so!" from the Israeli right." That struck us as repugnant. We tweeted back: "That's the most serious fallout? For us, slavish avoidance of word "terror" in some news channels is both uglier and harmful". It fell on deaf ears, of course.
  • And from the New York Times today, this cause-and-effect sound-bite:
    Few countries have been more vulnerable [in the wake of the huge influx of "undocumented migrants" as the New York Times delicately calls them] than Belgium. It has an especially high proportion of citizens who have traveled to Iraq, insular Muslim communities that have helped shield jihadists, and security services that have had persistent problems conducting effective counter-terrorism operations... 
    A difficult day, and not yet ended.

    UPDATE Tuesday March 22, 2016 at 7:30 pm: The Islamic State has claimed the Brussels attacks. The New York Times reports that:
    The Islamic State-affiliated news agency has issued a bulletin claiming responsibility for the deadly attacks Tuesday in Brussels. The claim was disseminated on the group’s official channel on Telegram, a social media platform, and picked up by other official ISIS channels on Telegram and on Twitter. “Islamic State fighters carried out a series of bombings with explosive belts and devices on Tuesday, targeting an airport and a central metro station in the center of the Belgian capital Brussels, a country participating in the coalition against the Islamic State,” the statement says. “Islamic State fighters opened fire inside the Zaventem airport, before several of them detonated their explosive belts, as a martyrdom bomber detonated his explosive belt in the Maalbeek metro station.”

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