Another deadly attack in Europe within five months of multiple attacks in French capital Paris last November has united European leaders as they reacted with shock and solidarity. Leaders sought closer counter terror cooperation to deal with the new threat as the continent faces its toughest security challenge since the end of world war II.
“The whole of Europe has been hit,” said French President Francois Hollande, whose country is still reeling from jihadist attacks in Paris that killed 130 people in November.
British Prime Minister David Cameron warned of the “very real” terrorist threat faced by countries across Europe, declaring: “We will never let these terrorists win.”
Russia and Turkey — also targets of deadly attacks in the last eight months — said the blasts highlighted the need to fight terrorism of every hue and across all borders.
Brussels residents were told to stay inside. Security was also beefed up at Belgium’s nuclear plants — where non-essential staff were sent home — and at EU buildings in the French city of Strasbourg, home to the European Parliament.
Interior Minister Jan Jambon announced that Belgium’s terror threat had been raised from three to a maximum of four, and the country’s national security council was due to meet.
And after rumours of arrests and searches, authorities told media to halt all reporting on the investigation into the bombings, “so as not to harm the inquiry”.
In Cairo, the head of Sunni Islam’s leading seat of learning, Al-Azhar, said the attacks “violate the tolerant teachings of Islam”.
Messages of solidarity poured out on social media, with thousands of people sharing images of beloved Belgian cartoon character Tintin in tears.
It has been a week of drama and bloodshed in Brussels. Last Tuesday saw a shootout in the city’s south that saw a Kalashnikov-wielding man killed and four police officers wounded.
Investigators believe key Paris suspect Abdeslam slipped out of the apartment as the gunbattle broke out. He was arrested three days later in Brussels’ gritty Molenbeek district — just around the corner from his family home.
Foreign Minister Reynders said at the weekend that Abdeslam — believed to have played a key logistical role in the Paris carnage — had told investigators he was planning some sort of new attack.
Shiraz Maher, a radicalisation expert at Kings College London, said it was “very likely that this attack will have been planned and prepared well in advance of last week’s arrest of Salah Abdeslam”.
“It therefore points to the existence of a broad and sophisticated terrorist network in Belgium, that extends beyond the one which attacked France last year,” Maher said.