Tuesday, 22 March 2016

International targets

The locations of today's bomb blasts in Brussels were more international in nature than in November's Paris attacks. Was that the intention?

Across Belgium, people are extremely shaken up by the gruesome terrorist attacks today which took the lives of at least 34 people. But perhaps none more so than the people in Brussels' expat community.

The two targets in today's attacks are extremely public spaces - an airport departures hall and a metro station. But these two particular spots are ones that are visited over and over by the people working in and around the institutions of the European Union.

Mairead McGuinness, an Irish member of the European Parliament who was trapped in her office along with the rest of the EU institutional staff today, told Ireland's TFM radio today that she and her staff were particularly affected. Maelbeek, the station in which the bomb on the metro was set off, is the Parliament's metro stop. She goes through the airport's check-in area twice a week as she goes to and from Ireland, she said. "I know that area exactly."

The Maelbeek metro station has been described by international media as being in the "center of Brussels", but in fact this is not the case. It is very specifically in the EU Quarter, not in an area where tourists would be, or where Belgian businesses are located. It is next to the European Parliament, European Commission and European Council. It lies on Rue de la Loi, the 'Gucci Gulch' of Brussels which is home to the most powerful lobbying firms in Brussels. It is also home to the International Press Centre, where the city's press corps covering the EU is based. According to media reports, the victims are from 40 difference countries.

During the course of today I've been astounded by how many people I know were either on the train that was bombed, were on a train just before or after it, or were on the street above just after the explosion. I also know several people who were at the airport departures area when that blast occurred.

In short, for the Brussels expat* community (roughly 25% of the city), these attacks felt particularly targeted at them.

It strikes me that this is very different from the targets in the Paris attacks in November. They were concert halls, cafes, and a soccer stadium - places that regular Parisians would have been frequenting. In other words, locals. Not tourists at the Eiffel Tower or the airport. Not international residents at La Defense.

I did a series of radio interviews from here in Brussels today, and I was struggling to answer the question of whether the targeting of Maelbeek station meant that the EU had been particularly targeted. It is itself not a very big station, used almost exclusively by people who work in and around the EU. At the same time, it is on the main metro line that cuts across the city, and the bomb went off in the train rather than in the station. It's conceivable that it was just a coincidence. Many people who have nothing to do with the EU would have been travelling on this route.

But in combination with the airport attack, it seems as if it cannot be random. And it was striking today how much of the media focus was on the fact that this station is just next to the EU building and, particularly, the Just Lips building where EU heads of state and government gather for summits. This metro line, in fact, travels right under the building in which they have their meetings. It seems unlikely Maelbeek station was an accidental choice.

So why were these 'international' targets chosen? This was, it seems, not just an attack on Belgium, but an attack on Europe as a whole.

In the coming days there will be a lot of discussion over what has gone so badly wrong in Belgium to result in this toxic terrorism nexus, a subject I've examined before. But either way, the rest of Europe has to understand that Belgium's problem is now Europe's problem. Systemic failures that exist in one state will affect all of the others. We're all in this together.

*Expat in this city is a tricky definition, usually used to define non-Belgians who are not from North Africa (People of North African origin also represent roughly a quarter of the city).

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