writes Cormac O’Keeffe

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An attack on the fabric of Western society

The attacks in Brussels fit into a pattern of a concerted campaign against institutions and activities that the West regards as central to its values and ideals, writes Cormac O’Keeffe

An attack on the fabric of Western society

IT WAS an international airport and a busy metro station yesterday. Last Saturday, it was a popular shopping street.

In November, it was pubs and restaurants, music venues and sports stadiums.

From travel to shopping, from socialising to sports: the fabric of Europe, and the lives of Europeans, is under threat.

The indiscriminate and unpredictable nature of the attacks means people of all nationalities, people of all faiths, and none, are equally at risk.

Given the proximity of Maalbeek metro station to the European Commission headquarters in Brussels, some analysts believe the European Union itself was a target.

The threat extends beyond the EU borders — to the museums and sunny beaches of Africa, major attractions for Europeans, which have been targeted by IS and sister terror organisation al-Qaeda.

The three co-ordinated bombings in Brussels (two at the airport and one at Maalbeek) yesterday morning was the nightmare scenario for Belgium police, intelligence, and emergency services, and came just days after the dramatic arrest of Paris terror attacks conspirator Salah Abselam in the city.

The bombings sparked fears of further attacks not just in Belgium, which increased its terror threat level to its highest, but in many other EU countries. This was reflected by moves to tighten security at borders and transportation hubs in France, Britain, Germany, and elsewhere.

Emphasising the threat on the EU, the Brussels police yesterday cordoned off EU buildings in case of further attacks.

Some 225 military troops were dispatched to the city and school children were told to stay indoors during breaks.

While no Irish people are known to have been injured in the Brussels attacks, many, both tourists and workers, were caught up in the chaotic and terrifying aftermath, both at the airport and the numerous EU buildings circling Maalbeek.

But Irish people have been caught up in previous terror attacks.

Last June, the IS-inspired shooting and bombing on the beaches of Sousse, Tunisia, resulted in three Irish citizens — Athlone couple Laurence and Martina Hayes and Meath woman Lorna Carty — being murdered along with 35 others, mainly European tourists.

In the Bataclan massacre in Paris on November 13 last, in which 89 people were killed as they watched a rock concert, Irish couple Katie Healy and David Nolan, escaped with their lives.

The attack was among a series of attacks on pubs and restaurants and the French national stadium.

Last Saturday, five Irish citizens, three of them children, escaped with their lives after a suicide bombing on a central shopping district in Istanbul, Turkey.

The father, Mohammed Ameen Bacik, who, along with his Latvian wife is a naturalised Irish citizen, said they were on holiday at the time.

It is not clear if yesterday’s attacks are linked to the dramatic arrest of Salah Abselam in Brussels last Friday.

Belgian authorities had warned following that arrest, and the seizure of weapons, that the risk of further attacks were very high, possibly by accomplices of Abselam.

Belgian interior minister Jan Jambon said at the time: “We know that stopping one cell can… push others into action. We are aware of it in this case.”

Abselam’s lawyer, Sven Mary, said his client was “worth his weight in gold” and was “collaborating” and “communicating” with police.

Investigators will examine if this alarmed another cell, who decided to act perhaps sooner than they intended.

Terrorism expert Margaret Gilmore of the Royal United Services Institute said that one of the key questions now was how the Belgian authorities, after arresting key members of the Paris cell in Brussels based on good intelligence, allowed another cell to have access to bombs and firearms.

She said the attackers had probably been in Syria, and that IS there could have had a role in orchestrating these attacks, to “bring the fight to Europe”.

She told RTÉ radio that the authorities had known there were cells in Brussels for some time.

She said it would be “difficult” for them to “take the bombs and weapons to other countries”.

Foreign Affairs Minister Charlie Flanagan urged Irish people in Belgium to exercise “extreme caution”.

In France, 1,600 additional officers have been positioned at borders and transportation points, including 400 in Paris. Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden and Finland also increased border and airport security.

In Britain, the country’s counter-terrorism police chief, assistant commissioner Mark Rowley, said they had increased policing presence at key locations, including transport hubs, in order to “protect the public and provide reassurance”.

Its terror threat level remains at “severe”, meaning a threat was “highly likely”.

British prime minister David Cameron said: “These were attacks in Belgium, these could just as well be attacks in Britain or elsewhere and we need to stand together.”

French prime minister François Hollande said that while terrorists had struck Brussels, Europe was the target.

He said Europe has been in a “state of war” for months, but that it was a global threat also affecting Africa.

Most recently, last weekend, a beach resort in the Ivory Coast, popular with Europeans, was targeted by terrorists associated with al-Qaeda, while on Monday, gunmen launched an attack on the European Union military training mission’s headquarters in the Malian capital, Bamako.

Mr Hollande said the war against terrorism should be taken in a “calm, lucid and determined” way as it “will be a long war”.

Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald said the bombings were another reminder of the “savagery of terrorists” who, she said, “hold our values and democracy itself in deadly contempt”.

Ms Fitzgerald said there was no specific information of a threat here, but said that, as a country with the same values as our European neighbours, Ireland “was not immune”.

She said the threat would be reviewed following yesterday’s attacks.

Last November, a Hollywood-style IS propaganda video included Ireland in a “coalition of devils”.

Experts said this may suggest Ireland was a “legitimate target” for IS supporters, but they did not believe it indicated there was a threat of attack.

Ms Fitzgerald said the gardaí are liaising with Belgian authorities and other international partners.

She added: “We have to bear in mind, too, that an attack on our European neighbours is an attack on us all.”

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