European Union ministers will try to forge a response to a wave of terrorism by Islamic State as fears grow that the perpetrators of Tuesday’s attacks in Brussels are part of a larger network that crosses the bloc’s borders with impunity.
As EU interior ministers meet in Brussels on Thursday afternoon to assess counter-terrorism and airport security after explosions at the airport and a subway station left 31 dead and about 300 injured, authorities are trying to piece together the Europe-wide links that connect this week’s atrocity to the bombings in France last year and plots for further attacks.
“We know there is connection to the wider network that is also responsible for the attacks in Paris,” Rob Wainwright, director of the EU’s crime-fighting agency Europol, told BBC Radio. “We are concerned about the extent to which however we are now uncovering a more widespread network than was first feared.” There are about 5,000 people who have been radicalized in Europe and have traveled to Syria and Iraq for “conflict experience,” he said.
The Brussels attacks, along the lines of the November killings in Paris, dramatized the need for a coordinated European response, while stoking populist anger that makes such a reaction harder to achieve. With a deluge of refugees from the Middle East testing the bloc’s dedication to open borders, suggestions of a terrorist network extending across many frontiers is increasing the urgency for greater intelligence-sharing.
As the investigation into Tuesday’s attacks continues, Belgian authorities are hunting possible accomplices of the suicide bombers. They include a suspect caught on CCTV wearing a light-colored jacket and dark hat pushing large bags at the airport, and a man possibly involved in the bombing at the metro station.
Authorities have identified two of the suicide bombers as brothers Khalid and Ibrahim El Bakraoui. A third was identified by Belgian media as Najim Laachraoui but this hasn’t been confirmed.
Ibrahim, 29, blew himself up at the airport while his brother Khalid, 27, carried out the subway bombing. The Brussels-born brothers, both Belgian citizens, had an “extensive criminal record, but not related to terrorism,” federal prosecutor Frederic Van Leeuw told reporters.
Laachraoui left for Syria in 2013 and was stopped on the Austria-Hungary border in September while traveling with Salah Abdeslam, who was arrested last week as a suspect in the Paris massacres in November that left 130 people dead.
While the hunt for his alleged accomplices drags on, the jailed Abdeslam asked to go to France from Belgium as soon as possible to explain himself, French radio France Info reported on its web site. A Brussels court postponed to April 7 a decision on continued detention for Abdeslam, who had previously said he would oppose extradition to France.
Investigators found explosive materials in a hideout in northern Brussels — including 15 kilograms (33 pounds) of TATP, 150 liters of acetone, 30 liters of hydrogen peroxide, detonators, a bag of nails and plastic trays, prosecutors said on Wednesday. They also found a will in a nearby rubbish bin, written by Ibrahim on a computer; he described himself as “frantic, not knowing what to do, being hunted everywhere,” prosecutor Van Leeuw said.
Following the two attacks on civilians in Paris, the Brussels murders exposed how difficult it is to track the sheer number of suspected Islamic radicals. Germany, up to now spared a large-scale attack, said it has files on 450 dangerous Islamists. Many European-born radicals have spent time in Syria undergoing terror training by the Islamic State, which claimed responsibility for the Brussels atrocities.
Setting the stage for likely recrimination over the EU’s struggle against terrorism at the ministers’ meeting, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told a news conference on Wednesday that one of the Brussels attackers had previously been caught in Gaziantep, in eastern Turkey, and then deported.
Belgian Justice Minister Koen Geens said on VRT television that he couldn’t confirm whether Belgium was aware of Turkey’s warning about Ibrahim as he was expelled to the Netherlands.
The interior ministers are expected to discuss measures including full passport screenings of all travelers to Europe, the creation of a new EU border force at the bloc’s external frontiers and a clamp down on arms trafficking — all of which have long been discussed without final decisions having been reached.
Only a short walk from the bombed station, EU leaders have met again and again over recent months in a continuing struggle to forge a united and effective response to the influx of refugees, terrorism and weak economic growth. But virtually each summit has been plagued by divisions.
Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, urged leaders to apply decisions taken even several years ago. In an interview with the Belgian newspaper Le Soir, he recalled summits in 1999 and 2001 – after the Sept. 11 attacks in the US – at which leaders had “sworn to each other” that secret services should share intelligence fully. “I note that up to today, these exchanges have been ‘parsimonious,’ to put it carefully,” Juncker said.
US Secretary of State John Kerry will fly to Brussels on Friday to express condolences and support in the attack investigation, the State Department said. Terrorist groups continue to plan “near-term events” throughout Europe, though the US has no knowledge of a specific threat there, State Department spokesman Mark Toner said at a briefing in Washington.
The transport system in Brussels began to return to operation, with one of the two main subway lines reopening and serving some stations, and tram and bus services reinstated. The airport will still be closed on Friday as investigators collect evidence and struggle to identify the dead.