Terrorists struck an international airport in Brussels and a subway station not far from the European Union’s headquarters earlier today. Initial casualty reports indicate that at least 34 people were killed and approximately 170 more were injured. Two explosions reportedly rocked the Brussels Airport and a third bomb was detonated at the Maelbeek station in downtown Brussels.
The Amaq News Agency, a propaganda arm of the Islamic State, has issued a claim of responsibility on its social media sites. The claim can be seen above.
“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 international coalition against the Islamic State,” Amaq’s statement reads in English.
Later, the Islamic State issued a formal statement claiming bombings on its Twitter and Telegram sites, and threatened further attacks.
“A group of the soldiers of the Caliphate, wrapped in explosive belts and carrying explosive devices and machine guns, launched to target sites carefully chosen in Brussels, the capital of Belgium, to immerse inside Brussels airport and the metro station and kill a number of Crusaders, before detonating their explosive belts amidst their groupings,” the Islamic State said, according to the SITE Intelligence Group, which translated the statement.
“We promise the Crusader states allied against the Islamic State with dark days, in response to their aggression against the Islamic State, and what is coming is worse and more bitter,” the group threatened.
Today’s attacks in Belgium took place just four days after Belgian and French police arrested Salah Abdeslam, an Islamic State operative who is suspected of providing logistical support and explosives manufacturing for the terrorist team responsible for the Nov. 13, 2015 coordinated attacks in Paris. Another suspect, Mohamed Belkaid, was killed in a shootout during the raid in Brussels that netted Abdelslam.
The Islamic State has long targeted Belgium. And today’s attacks emphasize the persistent threats Europeans face.
After the assault in Paris, French President François Hollande explained that the massacre was “planned in Syria, organized in Belgium, [and] perpetrated on our soil with French complicity.” Belgium was a key operational hub for that attack and other terrorist plots. The Islamic State has repeatedly said that Belgium is in its crosshairs.
European counterterrorism officials identified a Belgian man, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, as a key figure in the Paris attacks. Abaaoud was subsequently killed during a raid by French authorities, but his network continues to pose a threat to France, Belgium and other European nations. Known terrorists such as Abaaoud and his comrades are slipping through the cracks because European officials are being forced to investigate more threats than ever.
French officials linked Abaaoud to two other plots in France earlier in the 2015. According to the Associated Press, Abaaoud is thought to have been involved in an attack on a Paris-bound train and another on a church in the suburbs of Paris.
Despite his involvement in these plots, Abaaoud continued to operate in Europe. And he did not keep a low profile. The Islamic State interviewed Abaaoud in the seventh issue of its English-language magazine Dabiq, which was released in February 2015. [See LWJ report, Key suspect in Paris attacks has been featured in Islamic State propaganda.]
The cover of Dabiq 7 mocked Muslims who stood in unity with France over al Qaeda’s attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris in January 2015. Dabiq described Abaaoud as “a mujahid being pursued by Western Intelligence agencies for his jihad in Belgium.” Two members of Abaaoud’s cell were killed in a shootout with Belgian police during a raid on their safe house in Verviers on Jan. 15, 2015, just one week after the massacre at Charlie Hebdo’s offices.
In his interview with Dabiq, Abaaoud admitted that he and two accomplices, “Abuz-Zubayr al-Baljīkī (Khālid), and Abū Khālid al-Baljīkī (Sufyān),” traveled to Europe “in order to terrorize the crusaders waging war against the Muslims.”
Abaaoud said Belgium was a target as the country “is a member of the crusader coalition attacking the Muslims of Iraq and Shām [Syria].”
After some difficulties in traveling to Belgium, the three jihadists “were then able to obtain weapons and set up a safe house while we planned to carry out operations against the crusaders,” he claimed.
Abaaoud mocked Western intelligence services for failing to prevent him from entering Belgium and establish a cell, and then later failing to capture him after the Verviers raid.
“Allah blinded their vision and I was able to leave and come to Shām despite being chased after by so many intelligence agencies,” he stated. “All this proves that a Muslim should not fear the bloated image of the crusader intelligence. My name and picture were all over the news yet I was able to stay in their homeland, plan operations against them, and leave safely when doing so became necessary.”
Abaaoud said he was stopped by security officials after the Verviers raid and police failed to match him with a photograph of him that was obtained while he was in Syria.
“I was even stopped by an officer who contemplated me so as to compare me to the picture, but he let me go, as he did not see the resemblance,” he said.
Regardless of whether or not Abaaoud’s account is entirely accurate, it is clear that the Islamic State’s network in Europe has been able to launch attacks even though its operatives are sometimes well-known in Western counterterrorism and intelligence circles.
Belgian authorities have repeatedly warned that their country could be attacked at any time. After the raid on Abaaoud’s cell in Verviers, Belgian federal magistrate Eric Van der Sypt said the Islamic State was “on the verge of committing important terror attacks,” the AP reported. Van der Sypt added, “It shows we have to be extremely careful.”
An Islamic State fighter succeeded in executing an attack in Belgium in May 2014. Mehdi Nemmouche, a fighter who worked in the Islamic State’s jails in Syria, opened fire at a Jewish museum in Brussels, killing four people.