What We Know About the Brussels Attacks

Emergency services and police work around a metro station after an explosion in Brussels on Tuesday, March 22, 2016.

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Emergency services and police work around a metro station after an explosion in Brussels on Tuesday, March 22, 2016.

Dozens were killed in bombings at an airport and subway station, prompting outrage and disbelief across an already-shocked Europe.

Updated on March 22 at 6:52 p.m. ET

Here’s what we know so far:

—There were two explosions at Brussels’s Zaventem airport at about 8 a.m. local time (3 a.m. ET) and one on the city’s metro system.

The Belgian government’s Crisis Center said a dozen people were killed at the airport and about 100 wounded. Twenty people were killed in the subway attack and 13 wounded, it added. The numbers are provisional and are likely to increase.

—Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel, in a televised news conference, said “dozens” are dead and wounded in the blasts. He said the blast at the airport was caused by a suicide bomber. The Belgian federal prosecutor added that both attacks were terrorist acts.

—Belgium raised its terror-alert system from three to four, its highest level. Police issued a wanted notice for a man suspected of involvement in the attacks at the airport.

—Security has been stepped up across Europe in the wake of the attacks.

—The Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attacks, according to a group that monitor terrorist groups.


Two men “very likely” blew themselves up at Brussels airport Tuesday, and police are looking for a third person, the Belgian federal prosecutor said. The city’s subway system was also targeted at rush hour on Tuesday. ISIS claimed responsibility for the attacks, which killed at least 32 people and wounded more than 200 others.

Frederic Van Leeuw, the federal prosecutor, told a news conference the Islamic State’s claim of responsibility hadn’t been verified. But, he said, raids were being conducted across Belgium.

Speaking at the same news conference, Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel announced three days of national mourning in response to the attack. He said blasts were an attack on freedom, comparing Brussels to Paris and, before it, London and Madrid.

“It is a common fight,” Michel said. “It is a fight without borders.”

Speaking to the nation on television, King Philippe said Belgians would “continue to work together calmly, surely, and with dignity.”

“We must continue to trust ourselves,” he said. “This is our strength.”

Here’s what happened this morning:

There were two explosions at Zaventem airport at about 8 a.m. local time (3 a.m. ET) near the check-in desks at the departure terminal. The Belgian government’s Crisis Center said 12 people were killed and 100 wounded. Lodewijk De Witte, the provincial governor of Brabant Flanders, said security services had found and detonated a third bomb at the airport. Police later issued an image of a man inlight-colored clothing donning a dark hat who they said was a suspect in the attack on Zaventem.

Then, at 9 a.m., during rush hour, a blast hit a train at Maelbeek station, which is near the main European Union buildings. The crisis center said 20 people were killed here and 130 wounded.

Other news organizations are reporting other tolls based on quotes from Belgian officials. All the numbers are provisional and are likely to increase.  

ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack—in Arabic, English, and French—through its Amaq News Agency, according to the SITE intelligence group and others who monitor terrorist activity

Read more: Brussels Has Become the Jihadist Capital of Europe

In response to the attacks, Zaventem airport was closed—and will remain closed Wednesday, according to its CEO— and 200 flights in and out of the city were canceled. The city’s public transportation and main train stations were closed, but reopened later in the day with heavy security. Belgium raised its terror-threat level from three to four, the maximum level, and Van Leeuw’s office said the federal prosecutor’s anti-terrorism unit has opened a criminal investigation into the explosions. Police were searching for suspects in the Schaerbeek district, and Van Leeuw said a nail bomb, an Islamic State flag, and some chemicals had been recovered. Additionally, the Free University Brussels (VUB) said it would be closed for the rest of the week. A student there told the BBC the campus was being searched.  

Extraordinary precautions taken after the attacks—such as asking people to stay in place and leave their children at school—were lifted later in the day.

Tuesday’s attacks come four days after the capture of Salah Abdeslam, the accused logistical planner of the Paris attacks, in Brussels. Belgium’s capital has been on edge since the November 15 attack that killed 130 people in Paris, an operation organized by the Islamic State. Many of the attackers were Belgian nationals or residents. As my colleague David Graham has previously noted, Belgium has become Europe’s hub for Islamist radicals. Belgian officials warned their country’s citizens of a serious, imminent threat of terrorism, and later cancelled the New Year’s Eve fireworks in the capital. Those fears now appear realized—though Van Leeuw said it was too early to link the two attacks.

“My ears popped,” Evan Lamos, who was on a metro train that was evacuated after the blast, told the BBC.

Witnesses to the Explosion

Steve Clemons, the editor of Atlantic Live, was in Brussels at the time of the attacks. He tweeted his observations and interviewed witnesses as he left the city for Amsterdam.

“My ears popped,” Evan Lamos, who was on a metro train that was evacuated after the blast, told the BBC.

Local Reaction

Almost immediately after the attacks, people took to social media to offer help and to identify those unharmed. On Twitter, people offered rides around and out of the city, a home to stay in, and blood donations. Facebook activated its Safety Check feature that allows people in Brussels to tell others they’re safe by enabling a special status update.

Increased Security

Cities across Europe tightened security in the wake of the attacks.

In Britain and in France, officials deployed thousands more police across cities.

“As a precaution forces across the U.K. have increased policing presence at key locations, including transports hubs, to protect the public, and provide reassurance,” said Mark Rowley, the top British Metropolitan police officer in charge of special operations.

Britain was on alert for a follow-up attack, and left its terrorism warning level at severe, deeming London one of the most likely areas for potential attack. Rowley said the additional officers will “carry out highly visible patrols” around the city and its transport system to deter a follow up.

France deployed an additional 1,600 officers to reinforce security at its borders. Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said another 400 officers will patrol Paris, and military will guard public-transport areas.

Reaction Across Europe

The League of Imams in Belgium condemned the attack.  

A statement was issued by Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, who said the attacks “mark another low by the terrorists.” Margaritis Schinas, a spokesman for the European Commission, said: “We stand together, united against terror and in full solidarity with the people of Brussels.” EU leaders, in a statement, called the explosions “an attack on our open democratic society.”

French President Francois Hollande, who just days ago had reveled in the capture in Belgium of the man who planned the Paris attacks last November, said Tuesday that though the attack was on Brussels, all of Europe had been hit.

NATO called the attack “cowardly,” Russian President Vladimir Putin called the attacks “barbaric,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s spokesman called it “vile,” and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he was “outraged.”

The U.S. Response

President Obama, who is visiting Cuba, addressed the attacks moments before he spoke to the Cuban people.

“We will do whatever is necessary to support our friend and ally Belgium,” the president said. “This is yet another reminder that the world must unite in fighting against the scourge of terrorism.”

He added: “We can and we will defeat those who threaten the safety and security of people around the world.”

Obama also spoke to Michel to offer his condolences and assistance.

The U.S. Embassy in Brussels asked American citizens to shelter in place and avoid public transportation.

Donald Trump, the Republican presidential front-runner, told Fox News:

He also tweeted:

Senator Ted Cruz, Trump’s main rival on the Republican side, reacted in a similar fashion.

John Kasich, the Ohio governor and Republican presidential candidate, said he was “sickened” by the news. Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, the two Democrats running for president, took similar approaches.

For a fuller explanation of the various U.S. reactions, go here.

Three Americans, all Mormon missionaries, were injured in the explosions at the airport. They were identified as Richard Norby, 66, of Lehi, Utah; Joseph Empey, 20, of Santa Clara, Utah; and Mason Wells, 19, of Sandy, Utah. A U.S. service member and his family were also injured.  

Expressions of Solidarity

This cartoon from Le Monde was widely shared in the aftermath of the attacks:

A photo posted by Le Monde (@lemondefr) on

Tributes also featured Tintin, perhaps Belgium’s best-known export…

…as well as Manneken-Pis, widely seen as emblematic of Brussels’s spirit:

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