World

ISIS claims responsibility for lethal Brussels bombings

A shot from surveillance cameras shows three suspects. The two at left are presumed dead; a search is on for the third.
Belgian Federal Police via AFP
A shot from surveillance cameras shows three suspects. The two at left are presumed dead; a search is on for the third.

BRUSSELS — Bombs packed with nails terrorized Brussels on Tuesday in the deadliest assault on the European heartland since the Islamic State’s attacks on Paris four months ago, hitting the airport and subway system in coordinated strikes that killed at least 34.

The militant group claimed responsibility for the latest attacks, which paralyzed Brussels, the headquarters of the European Union and NATO, and triggered international travel warnings that reverberated across the Atlantic. New York and other major cities raised terrorism threat levels. Anxieties intensified about the inability to prevent mass killings at relatively unprotected places.

At least 230 people were injured by two blasts at the Brussels airport departure area around 8 a.m. Brussels time and one in a subway station about an hour later. The police found at least one other unexploded bomb in a search of a Brussels house hours later. The state prosecutors’ office said the raid also yielded chemical products and an Islamic State flag.

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And Europe’s most wanted person suddenly became an unidentified man in a white coat and dark hat seen pushing a luggage cart in an airport surveillance photo taken just before the bombings. Two other men in the photo, each wearing a black glove on his left hand, were identified by Belgian prosecutors as suspected suicide bombers who appeared to have died in the explosions.

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“To those who have chosen to be the barbaric enemies of liberty, of democracy, of fundamental values, I want to say with the greatest strength that we will remain assembled and united,” the Belgian prime minister, Charles Michel, said at a news conference Tuesday evening, declaring a three-day mourning period.

Passengers who had been in line at airport departure counters described sudden panic and mayhem as the explosions turned the area into a death trap with flames, smoke, flying glass, nails and shrapnel, leaving at least 10 people dead.

“We heard a big noise and saw a big flash,” said one passenger, Ilaria Ruggiano, who had been traveling with six others, including her mother. “My mother went to the floor — she was hit. I just dropped my luggage and went to the floor. A kid came out, bleeding a lot. I tried to help him with a tissue, but it was not enough. There were two bombs.”

Some witnesses described hearing two distinct blasts, with shouts apparently in Arabic from at least one attacker before the second, bigger explosion.

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The airport was closed, disrupting and diverting dozens of flights and leaving hundreds of passengers stranded, and the Belgian authorities placed the entire metropolitan area on emergency lockdown. It was not clear when the airport would reopen; the Belgian authorities said it was certain to remain closed Wednesday because of the investigation.

Then at 9:11 a.m. — the timing may just have been an eerie coincidence — a bomb tore through a car in the rear part of a subway train pulling out of the busy Maelbeek Station at the height of the morning rush, killing at least 20 people. Later, a security official said the overall death toll had risen to 34, without providing a breakdown of where, the Associated Press reported.

“We felt a boom; we felt the building tremble,” said Henk Stuten, 50, who works for the European Commission in an office above the station. “We saw through the windows that people were rushing out of the metro exit.”

The scores of wounded including people from around the world. Several Americans were injured, including an Air Force lieutenant colonel stationed in the Netherlands, his wife, and four children who were at the airport. Mormon church officials, meanwhile, said three of its missionaries from Utah were seriously injured in the blasts and were hospitalized.

In the afternoon, Amaq, a news agency affiliated with the Islamic State, issued a bulletin claiming responsibility for the attacks, calling them the work of suicide bombers.

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Frédéric Van Leeuw, the Belgian federal prosecutor, said at a news conference on Tuesday night that “at this stage, it is not possible to draw a formal link with the Paris attacks.” A cell of 10 operatives, a number of them from the Brussels district of Molenbeek, were implicated in the Paris attacks on Nov. 13, which left 130 people dead. The Brussels strikes came only a few days after the Belgian police captured Salah Abdeslam, the only suspect in the Paris assaults believed to have survived, who is considered a potential trove of information on the Islamic State’s attack planning.

The State Department on Tuesday warned Americans traveling in Europe to “exercise vigilance when in public places or using mass transportation.” 

World leaders reacted with horror and calls for solidarity, though the attacks also spotlighted the fractious debate over terrorism and Islam in Europe and in the American political campaign. The Eiffel Tower, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai and One World Trade Center in Manhattan were among the landmarks around the world lit up with the black, red and yellow of Belgium’s flag as night fell.

“Through the Brussels attacks, it is the whole of Europe that is hit,” President François Hollande of France declared. He vowed “to relentlessly fight terrorism, both internationally and internally.”

The French government ordered 1,600 extra police officers to patrol the nation’s borders, including at train stations, airports and ports. The National Assembly, the lower house of Parliament, observed a moment of silence to honor the dead.

Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain called an emergency meeting of ministers. Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier of Germany said the attacks “aim at the heart of Europe.” Pope Francis expressed condolences.

President Obama, speaking in Havana, called the Brussels attacks “yet another reminder that the world must unite, we must be together, regardless of nationality or race or faith, in fighting against the scourge of terrorism.”

But a Russian official tempered sympathy with a scolding of his European colleagues over their policies on migration and terrorism. “It is time for Europe to understand where the real threat is coming from, and to unite its efforts with Russia,” Aleksei K. Pushkov, the chairman of the foreign affairs committee in Parliament, wrote on Twitter.

Since the Paris attacks, security experts have warned that Europe was likely to face additional assaults by the Islamic State and by other terrorist groups.

The Paris attacks showed that the scale and sophistication of the Islamic State’s efforts to carry out operations in Europe were greater than first believed, and analysts have pointed to Europe’s particular vulnerabilities. They include the huge flow of undocumented migrants to the Continent from the Middle East last year, the unimpeded movement of European citizens between their home countries and Syria to fight with the Islamic State, and persistent problems with intelligence-sharing among European countries and even between competing security agencies in some nations.

Few countries have been more vulnerable than Belgium. It has the highest proportion of citizens and residents who have traveled to Syria or Iraq, insular Muslim communities that have helped shield jihadis, and security services that have had persistent problems conducting effective counterterrorism operations, not least in their four-month effort to capture Abdeslam.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.