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Timing Of Brussels Attacks Raises Questions About Paris Links


Here's one way to think about the attacks today in Brussels, Belgium. It is not just a city that's being targeted, not just a country, but the entire European continent. The explosions at the major airport and a metro station came days after the arrest of a suspect in last year's attacks in Paris.


Now, the next voice we'll hear is Raphael Satter. He's an Associated Press correspondent covering today's attacks in Brussels. Where are you, and what are you able to see?

RAPHAEL SATTER: Hi, Steve. I'm just outside the European quarter, which is where the major European buildings are. And what I can see is a lot of traffic jams. Many of the roads here are closed. Many people are out in the street walking around despite the fact that they've been advised to stay indoors and to not move around. But we also see a lot of soldiers - men in camouflage wielding very heavy weaponry.

INSKEEP: And let's remember we're talking about a pair of attacks on the airport and on a metro stop not very far from where you are that are believed to have killed at least 26 people and wounded scores more. So you describe almost a military-style situation there now.

SATTER: Yes, I mean, I think that you can - you've got about a soldier every block or every other block. And you have major disruption. You may be able to hear in the background sirens. That's been a near constant since I've been in here. And I am not far from the hospital where they have brought patients. So you can probably hear some of that noise in the background right now.

INSKEEP: Indeed, we can. Raphael Satter of the Associated Press is in Brussels. Thank you very much for your help today.

SATTER: My pleasure, thank you.

GREENE: All right, we're listening to many voices this morning. We heard earlier from Mike Leiter. He's the former director of the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center, and he says Europe has not seen so many concerted attacks in more than a decade.


MIKE LEITER: It's really only with the rise of ISIS in Syria and the attacks in Paris and now this attack that we've seen Western Europe facing such a concentrated, deadly and really sophisticated threat. And we're seeing the challenges of relatively open borders and a fractured intelligence system, which makes it very, very hard to detect and stop these attacks.

GREENE: OK, Mr. Leiter there mentioned the term ISIS. We should be clear; we do not know who's responsible for the blasts in Belgium this morning. We only know the timing that they came after a Brussels arrest. Let's talk through what is known with William McCants. He's the author of the "ISIS Apocalypse." He's a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Mr. McCants, good morning.

WILLIAM MCCANTS: Good morning.

GREENE: So of the evidence that we have collected so far and what we know in Belgium so far, what is standing out to you?

MCCANTS: Well, it comes so soon after the attack that Leiter alluded to in Paris and then the arrest of one of the Paris attackers who had been on the lam for months. I mean, I believe his arrest was on Friday. And one of his associates is a man who had helped direct the Paris attack - a man by the name of Najim Laachraoui, who also has a background in electromechanical engineering. And his DNA was discovered at a Brussels apartment used by the Paris attackers to build their bombs for those attacks. So there's some early thinking that if this is indeed a reaction to the arrest of Abdeslam, that he might be involved in making the bomb.

GREENE: You say a reaction. I mean, you think that somehow this arrest might have triggered this? Could it have been sort of a message that had been sent that if he were arrested at some point, that people should respond in this way?

MCCANTS: These kind of attacks take a long time to plan. So the thinking is rather that when he was arrested and Laachraoui was identified as his accomplice, which happened yesterday, that Laachraoui and his network would have pushed up the timetable for an attack they were already planning.

INSKEEP: Mr. McCants, I want to ask about something else that we heard from Mike Leiter earlier this morning, the former Counterterrorism Center director of the United States. He said these seem to be the worst attacks against Europe in more than a decade. And he reminded us that a little more than a decade ago, there were attacks on Madrid. There were attacks on London, which were horrifying at the time. And yet, hearing him say that was almost reassuring in a strange way because it was a reminder that this has happened before and that authorities at that time tightened security and responded to the threat and seemed to contain it for a time. But now here it is again. When you look at the threat posed by these recent attacks, does this seem like a graver threat to Europe's security than the attacks of 10 years ago or more?

MCCANTS: It does because the main difference with those earlier attacks is that after the attacks in the previous decade, the plotters and their associates were quickly rounded up. And you didn't have subsequent attacks. Here you had a major attack in Paris. One of the attackers was on the lam for months. And now presumably, if it does turn out to be his network, they pulled off another major attack in another European capital. We have not seen a jihadist cell in Europe able to pull off two different kinds of attacks in quick - relatively quick succession in this way. Usually, the networks are rounded up, and you don't hear from them again.

GREENE: Mr. McCants, step back if you can. You've written about ISIS. And again, we should say we do not know anything that would lead specifically to believe ISIS is playing a role in the Belgium attacks this morning. But, you know, there were links to the Paris attacks. We're seeing this happening. What message is ISIS or other extremist groups trying to send with these attacks?

MCCANTS: Well, ISIS began building its terror infrastructure soon after the United States and the coalition started dropping bombs on its positions in Iraq and then in Syria. And the Paris attacks were claimed by ISIS and framed as a response to coalition bombing of ISIS-held territory. If these attacks turn out to be ISIS, it would be because the Islamic State is losing ground in Iraq and Syria. And it is using these attacks to punish members of the coalition that are trying to capture ISIS territory.

INSKEEP: OK, so is this actually a sign of desperation then, rather than a sign of aggressiveness - a sign that ISIS is on the defensive?

MCCANTS: It is. But it's not something to rejoice about just yet because the more they lose territory, the more incentive they have to carry out these kind of attacks in the West.

INSKEEP: Well, Mr. McCants, thanks very much, really appreciate your help this morning.

MCCANTS: My pleasure.

INSKEEP: William McCants is a counterterrorism analyst. He is also author of the "ISIS Apocalypse" and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. And he talks with us on this morning when we are tracking the attacks in Brussels this morning. And just to review where we stand, what we know, about 8 o'clock local time, the first explosion took place - ultimately, two explosions inside a departure hall at a major Brussels airport. About an hour or so later, there was an explosion at a metro station, which was near the European Union headquarters. The rapidly changing numbers of casualties are as follows. At the moment, we're told at least 26 people are dead, about 15 in one location and 11 at another. We also have well over 100 people believed to be injured. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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