Grim awareness, suspicion spread as Brussels reels from bombings

Under heavy grey skies, the city of Brussels and the symbolic centre of the European Union got off to a slow, faltering start Wednesday morning, one day after bombings killed at least 31 people and wounded 270.

Security remains tight as police continue manhunt for third suspect in attacks

A Moroccan-Belgian woman who lit a candle Wednesday and left it at Place de la Bourse in central Brussels in memory of the bombing victims says she 'can't understand why people would kill innocents.' (Megan Williams/CBC)

Under heavy grey skies, the city of Brussels and the symbolic centre of the European Union got off to a slow, faltering start Wednesday morning, one day after the worst attack the city has experienced.

Its morning streets near the Maelbeek Metro usually stream with EU bureaucrats bustling past modern office towers on their way to work.

Yet less than 24 hours after two bombs exploded — first at the Brussels airport and then at the Maelbeek Metro station — the city is still reeling.

Today, those who decided to take the bus or walk soberly made their way past the police barricades and cordoned-off areas, bearing a look that conveyed less shock than a grim new awareness.

Police officers stand at a barricade near the Maelbeek subway station in Brussels Wednesday. (Megan Williams/CBC)

At the La Gare Central, the main train station, commuters shuffled forward in a lineup for police checks before entering the heavily guarded and largely empty terminal.

Among them was Belgian social worker Ines, who did not want to give her last name.

Like almost everyone here, when asked if she was surprised by the attacks, she said no.

Paris was 'a warning'

"The attacks in Paris were a warning that it was just a matter of time before something similar happened in nearby Brussels," she said, referring to the fact that both cities have populations that include poor, alienated and unemployed young North African Muslim immigrants.

"But I also wasn't surprised given how the situation of countries at war in the Middle East is getting worse," she said, adding Europe's response to migrants isn't helping matters. 

Still, she said, her main concern now is for the city's already sidelined population of Moroccan origin.

Mourners are leaving candles and flowers in memory of the victims of the attacks at Place de la Bourse in central Brussels, making the area the emotional hub of the bombing aftermath. (Megan Willians/CBC)

"There are the victims, the families of the victims and then all those people who will suffer collateral damage, who will be even further stigmatized after these attacks."

Officials had named Najim Laachraoui, 25, as one of three men seen on CCTV pushing a baggage trolley alongside the two other bombers at the airport.

Some media reported that he had been captured in the Brussels borough of Anderlecht, which has a heavy North African population, but police say another person was detained and that the hunt for Laachraoui continues.

One airport suspect has been identified as Belgium-born Ibrahim El-Bakraoui, who died in what is presumed to be a suicide attack. 

Officials have said the attacks Tuesday killed at least 31 people and wounded 270.

As the police continue the manhunt, security remains tight, with military trucks, cordoned-off streets and sirens wailing.

Open suspicion

Many in the city are not-so-quietly suspicious of the North African immigrant community in general, openly wondering how it was possible that the key suspect in the Paris attack, Salah Abdeslam, arrested just days ago, was able to hide for months in a neighbourhood without widespread community collusion.

A Palestinian-Belgian man gets ready to write his message of peace at Place de la Bourse in central Brussels Wednesday. (Megan Williams/CBC)

One inhabitant of the neighbourhood who says she is acutely aware of the suspicion is Jamila, a middle-aged woman of Moroccan descent who was wearing a soft pink scarf.

At Place de la Bourse, already the emotional hub of the bombing aftermath, she lit a candle and placed it on the small square now scrawled with chalked messages and scatterings of flowers, candles and flags. Then she stood up and burst into tears.

"I haven't slept all night," she said, "and even though I'm very sick, I had to come here. I just can't understand why people would kill innocents. Muslims don't do this. The Qur'an says not to kill. We should be protesting."

When asked how the attacks will affect her community, she says it will cause nothing but problems.

"I feel the sideways glances of people at us. They were there before," she said, "but they will just get worse now."

'Just going to make it tougher'

Brooks Tigner, a policy analyst at Security Europe, a think-tank in Brussels, agrees.

"This is just going to make it tougher … especially for the young men looking to get hired," he said, referring to the North African population.

While Tigner's expertise is in airports and railway security, he says the real solution to Europe's "terrorist problem" is a long-term one: investment in both social integration and better security. He cites revamped airport design and railway cars that better absorb the impact of explosions as two potential improvements.

A soldier stands near broken windows after explosions at Zaventem airport near Brussels on March 22, 2016. (Francois Lenoir/Reuters)

"The great dilemma we face is that this terrorist activity has been multiplying, or at least the 'chatter' that the Intel security services see is enormous across the internet," says Tigner. 

However, he says the threats won't go away until integration and opportunity for the alienated young people are addressed.

"The kind of social remediation and counter-radicalization efforts are a 10-to-15-year process because they're bundled in with jobs and training and outreach at the community level."

But he's not optimistic solutions will be found any time soon.

"I'm afraid what we're going to get instead are calls from across Europe for more surveillance."


Megan Williams

Rome correspondent

Rome correspondent Megan Williams has covered everything from Italian politics and migration to the Vatican and the Venice Biennale for almost two decades. Her award-winning documentaries can be heard on Ideas, The Current and other CBC shows. Megan is a regular guest host of As It Happens and The Current.


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