Year on from bombings, Belgium is safer, PM Michel says

Belgium has learned lessons about keeping violent Islamists in check but cannot rule out more attacks, Prime Minister Charles Michel said March 21, a year after Islamic State suicide bombers killed 32 people in Brussels.

In an interview with Reuters on the eve of the anniversary of the March 22 bloodshed at the airport and on a metro train, Michel said European states still needed to do more to coordinate surveillance of potential threats and that it was too early to say when Belgium would pull troops off the streets.

Combat troops have been patrolling the streets and stations of the Belgian and European Union capital since Islamic State attacks on Paris that killed 130 people on Nov 13, 2015 were blamed on young men, some of whom had fought in Syria and many from the Brussels borough of Molenbeek.

Michel said he could not say when the expert panel that assesses threat levels might recommend lowering precautions.

But he praised his country’s security services, who were criticised by some abroad for failing to track the radicalised young men from Brussels who attacked Paris and then their own city four months later, citing additional public funding for the security services and legislation to close loopholes in police powers to tap phones or raid suspects’ homes overnight.

On March 22, 2016, three Islamic State suicide bombers, all Belgian nationals, blew themselves up at Brussels airport and in a metro train in the Belgian capital, killing 32 people and wounding hundreds.

With the recent attacks in Belgium and other European countries, Michel, a 41-year-old conservative politician, said EU democracies were paying the price for years of not addressing extremism.

“Thinking they were doing the right thing, some politicians have probably been too lax about the build-up of an extremist, fundamentalist, radical ideology. This is a lesson to learn for European democracy, it is a lesson for all democracies in the world. Democracies have to protect themselves against the enemies of democracy. At the end of the day, our enemies the terrorists use the liberties offered by democracy to try and destroy this model of society, this model of liberty.”

The March 22 attacks on a city that is home to the European Union and NATO sent authorities racing to review security at airports and on public transport. It also rekindled debate about lagging European security cooperation and flaws in police surveillance.

Since then, Belgium has remained on high alert as it tries to curtail threats both at home and from militants who may return from the Middle East.

Michel said more remained to be done at the European level, adding the adoption of an EU law on retaining and sharing passenger name records – PNR – was a step in the right direction.