“That which we feared has happened. Our country and our people have been hit by two attacks that were blind, violent and cowardly.”
So said Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel this morning, speaking in the immediate aftermath of Tuesday’s attacks on Brussels. Expressing condolences and calling for unity, he voiced what many people had been thinking—that some form of assault on Belgium was perhaps inevitable. Indeed, the country has been gritting its teeth in readiness for just such a possibility since the Paris attacks of last November.
Following the awful night of November 13, international attention shifted partly from the carnage in France to the Belgian capital, where it emerged that several of the attackers had links to the Brussels neighborhood of Molenbeek. When the Paris attacker and Molenbeek resident Salah Abdeslam managed to evade police and go into hiding, intense scrutiny fell on the area, long cited as a potential breeding ground for Islamic extremism. With Abdeslam still on the loose, Brussels went into prolonged lockdown lasting four days. During this time, central streets fell quiet and much of the city’s life turned inwards to the comfort of home.
As tensions subsided, however, things relaxed a little, and the city even launched a somewhat awkward campaign to assure visitors that it was indeed safe. Comments by Donald Trump damning the city as a “hellhole” didn’t help, raising again as they did the inaccurate chimera of “no-go zones” in a city that, despite the terror threat, does not possess any.
The truth is, nonetheless, that the threat of terrorism has indeed placed Belgian authorities under intense strain, as official custodians of a small country playing an unexpectedly large role on the international stage. When Salah Abdeslam was finally tracked down and captured alive on March 19, it was in a Molenbeek house close to where he grew up. The police were ultimately able to catch him, but he had nonetheless spent months hiding under their nose. There have also been complaints by police unions of poor security staffing at the airport, although both of today’s explosions there occurred in the public access areas, before the point where passengers must clear security. Already some voices—arguably much too soon—are citing the city’s fragmented administrative structure as one of the causes of its vulnerability.
It seems highly probable that the bombings are indeed in response to Abdeslam’s capture, and UPDATE at 11:26 a.m., the Islamic State is now claiming responsibility for the attacks, according to a group that monitors terrorist organizations. For Brussels residents, hunkered down at home and praying that the death toll doesn’t rise further, the sense of grim foreboding that came before the attacks nonetheless has done little to suggest what shape events will take in the near future.