Guest Host: Katherine Lanpher
Deadly terror attacks strike sites in the Belgian capital. What we know so far.
- Gabriele Steinhauser Reporter, The Wall Street Journal; based in Brussels
- Peter Spiegel Brussels bureau chief, Financial Times
MS. KATHERINE LANPHERThanks for joining us. I'm Katherine Lanpher sitting in for Diane Rehm. In a few moments, we'll discuss President Obama's trip to Cuba, but first, we're going to talk with two journalists on the ground in Brussels to get the latest on the attacks there this morning. We have a reported two dozen people killed and more than 130 injured in explosions at Brussels International Airport and a subway station.
MS. KATHERINE LANPHEROf course, we'll update you on those numbers as they change. Joining us by phone from Brussels is Peter Spiegel, the Brussels bureau chief for The Financial Times and Gabriele Steinhauser, a reporter with The Wall Street Journal. We're going to start with Gabriele. Thanks so much for joining us.
MS. GABRIELE STEINHAUSERAnytime.
LANPHERSo you're at the airport. What are you hearing? What are you seeing about you?
STEINHAUSERYes, I'm about 150 meters away from the departure part of the airport where the two explosions happened this morning. It's starting to get relatively quiet here now. A few hours ago, hundreds -- probably thousands of people were evacuated from the airport who had been kept inside the airport for many hours. I can see the glass (word?) of the departures halls blown out. Normally, it's closed, but there's no -- hardly any glass left there.
STEINHAUSERI spoke to a lot of witnesses earlier in the day, some of whom had been very close to the explosions, some of whom had blood on their clothes, who were telling me about very horrific tales inside. Lots of injuries to the lower limbs, probably because the bombs went off quite low on the ground.
LANPHERThey went off quite low at the ground. And describe about what time this happened. I believe it was rush hour.
STEINHAUSERIt was 8:00 AM so, yes, it's a very busy time, you know. People arriving for meetings here. It's the capital of the EU so there are lots of people flying in and out on a daily basis for meetings at the European institutions.
LANPHERPeter, I'd like to turn to you. You are near the metro station that was hit. If you can tell us what you are hearing now.
MR. PETER SPIEGELYeah. I mean, this is literally about 300 meters from our office here in the center of the EU quarter of Brussels, which has a lot of the international community very much on edge. As Gabriele pointed out, you know, Brussels is well known as not only a hub for NATO and other institutions, but it's the nominal capital of Europe. So we had a lot of sort of otherwise hard-bitten EU diplomatic types really sort of looking rather shocked and unnerved this morning.
MR. PETER SPIEGELIt's -- the station itself is right underneath some of the big, you know, where the summit buildings are held and what would be EU institutions are. We've been talking to officials at, you know, smelling acrid smoke coming into their offices. One of the DGs, the director generals, sort of the administrative office has been used as -- their restaurant has been used as a triage center where they're pulling out people from the metro into the EU building itself.
MR. PETER SPIEGELSo it is right in -- frankly, it's the metro line I use every morning. One of my colleagues here in the office literally 30 seconds before the bomb went off was walking out of the station and turned around and saw the smoke. So it's hitting very close to home for all of us here in the EU Center.
LANPHERWell, they're being described as terrorist attacks. What do we know so far? Peter, I'll start with you and then we can go to Gabriele.
SPIEGELWell, there's been no claim of responsibility, which is making the reporting on this a little bit awkward. I mean, what we do know is that Salah Abdeslam, who was the last remaining known surviving attacker or plotter, at least, in the Paris attacks back in November, he was captured here in Brussels here on Friday and over the weekend and even as recently as yesterday, Belgium officials were saying that they were nervous there would be some sort of retaliation because of this.
SPIEGELThe assumption amongst the officials I was talking to is that, you know, he started talking to police. The Belgium authorities and the French authorities both were saying that he was sort of, you know, squealing on potential plots that were coming up. And so one of the operating theories is that if there was indeed a cell operating here that had something ready to -- to pull a trigger, they moved up their operation because they were afraid that Abdeslam would speak, would sort of rat them out or that, frankly, the Belgians had finally, after four months of hunting these guys, had got onto their trail and were ready to break it up.
SPIEGELSo that is an operating assumption right now, but again, that is based on a lot of supposition because we do know -- no claims of responsibility so we do not know who the actual attackers are just yet.
LANPHERGabriele, I'd like to turn to you.
STEINHAUSERSure, yeah. I still...
LANPHERSounds like we have just a moment of -- a hiccup of phone difficulty here so I'll go back to Peter. What does it say that they were expecting an attack, nervous about an attack and yet, weren't able to prevent this one and can't even get anyone yet to take responsibility?
SPIEGELI mean, that's the slightly frightening thing about this. What we've been hearing over the last weeks and months, since Paris, in particular, but even dating back to a year and a half ago is this image that they had for a long time of the lone wolf, you know, sort of sitting at his internet -- his computer at home, you know, strolling jihadi websites for inspiration. But that model no longer exists, particularly when it comes to Islamic State.
SPIEGELWe've seen a series of attacks now, even dating back to a year and a half ago in town called (word?) which not a lot of people paid attention to, that they had much more sophisticated networks in Europe and they are taking advantage of those to plot much more sophisticated attacks. And as a result, they have all the trade craft that is associated with some of the more sophisticated terrorist groups, including, you know, keeping out of the way of law enforcement and security services, you know, pretty good ability to do that, obviously.
SPIEGELInevitably, the Belgians, in particular, are going to come under pressure. This happened after Paris. The French authorities were blaming the Belgians for sort of allowing the neighbor called Molenbeek sort of becoming a jihadi central and Abdeslam was captured in Molenbeek. So the Belgians, in particular, have come under a lot of pressure for not doing enough to weed this out. But to be honest, no one's done a good job on this. I mean, we've seen this happening, obviously, in Paris.
SPIEGELThe Brits have had problems with this. This is a European-wide problem akin to sort of what the Americans realized after September 11. They just have to get better at this and devote more resources to it.
LANPHERLet's go back to Gabriele Steinhauser who is at the airport in Brussels. Was asking you, Gabriele, before we lost you, the explosions come days after the arrest of one of the Paris attackers. It is -- people know that the officials were nervous about this. They thought it might happen. So what does it say, that this still happened?
STEINHAUSERI think what it says is that there are lots of people (unintelligible) in this world and it's really, really hard to keep tabs on all of them. I think some of this was probably unavoidable. I was speaking to some people here who said, you know, why is there no secure checks outside the departure hall, like they have in some other airports. But then, you have somebody attacking there. I mean, it seems like there must be so many people involved here, despite all the arrests, despite everything that happened here in the last month.
STEINHAUSERThere were clearly still some bad guys who were planning something and succeeded twice.
LANPHERGabriele, you're there at the airport and so I'm wondering if you also talked to people -- obviously, this was talked about as a potential that could happen, and yet, people still came to the airport. People still got on the metro. Did you meet anyone who explained to you that it didn't stop them? I mean, I would've gotten on a flight. I got on a flight to Turkey the day after the Paris attacks. I mean, you can't stop your life.
STEINHAUSERAnd I think what you also have to keep in mind, I mean, we've seen here in Brussels on heightened alert very much since November. We had, you know, four days where everything was shut down and nothing happened. And I think you can't just stop life because there are some -- a few people threatening us.
LANPHERPeter, to go back to you near the metro, security is being tightened not only in Brussels, but in nearby countries, is it not?
SPIEGELIt's true. And, again, it gets back to this issue of how broad is the network. And if I could just get back to Gabriele's point. I mean, we can say we have to sort of put up new security at every airport, but let's remember the targets that have happened over the last year or so. The Bataclan Theater in Paris, we had a Thalys train going from Brussels to Paris. We now have an airport, a metro. It almost seemed that the pattern is no pattern. And so this is actually, again, evidence that these terrorist groups are becoming much more sophisticated.
SPIEGELThey're keeping everyone guessing. For awhile, after the shooting at a Jewish museum here in Brussels, there was an ISIS attack here, everyone said, oh, no, we have to watch out for Jewish-related centers. After Charlie Hebdo, the media said, oh, we have to have security on media. What is clearly apparent is this -- they are using the randomness of the targets against us in a sense. We cannot, as Gabriele says, we cannot suddenly put security in front of every single thing we do every day.
SPIEGELIt would cost not only, you know, billions of dollars or euros to build that, but it does -- it would create -- it would, you know, turn our societies -- it would freeze them up. So they are using sort of our advantages against us in this regard. And so I think sort of blaming the Belgium authorities for not securing the airport misses the point. They are intentionally attacking places that we don't suspect them to hit.
LANPHERGabriele, I'd like to end with you.
LANPHERAs you were there at the airport, I'm just wondering what it is you're going to be looking for now.
STEINHAUSERWell, I think we're obviously still trying to establish what exactly happened. Were these suicide bombers? It very much sounds like it. A little while ago, there was another controlled explosion at the airport here of a suspicious package that may have been another bomb that didn't go off. Speaking to victims here and witnesses, we're obviously trying to find out how people dealt with the situation in the immediate aftermath.
STEINHAUSERI was speaking to some people earlier this morning who said that it took 10 minutes for security forces to arrive, that they were guided, actually, through the scene where the explosions happened. So I imagine that there will be some soul-searching afterwards as well on how to improve the organization. But I will say that the vast majority of the hundreds of people that I seen leaving the airport today, they were very calm and collected and they were taken away on buses and, obviously, nobody was complaining. They were just dealing with the situation.
LANPHERGabriele Steinhauser -- Gabriele Steinhauser, I want to thank you for joining us. She's a reporter based in Brussels with The Wall Street Journal. We also were talking to Peter Spiegel, Brussels bureau chief for The Financial Times. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show."