Border Controls Tightened as Europe Comes to Grips With Yet Another Mass Casualty Attack

By James Carstensen | March 22, 2016 | 4:47pm EDT
Police patrol the E.U. Commission building, after a bomb exploded at a nearby subway station in Brussels, Belgium, Tuesday, March 22, 2016. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner)

Berlin ( – Tuesday’s deadly bombings in Brussels prompted governments across the continent to hold emergency consultations and raise security at airports, train stations and borders, as Europeans grappled with fears that the threat of terrorism may become a part of their daily lives.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel is expected to convene the German cabinet early Wednesday morning to discuss “in depth” a response plan to the attacks at Brussels’ Zaventem airport and a crowded metro station near key European Union institutions.

At least 34 people were killed and more than 180 injured, with fears the death toll will rise further. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS/ISIL) claimed responsibility for the attacks.

“Our strength is in our unity, and that is how our free societies will prove themselves stronger than terrorism,” Merkel declared.

Germany’s federal police reported they have increased security on the borders with Belgium, France, the Netherlands and Luxembourg, as well as at airports and railway stations.

In France, already on a heightened state of alert after the two terror attacks last year, President François Hollande held an emergency meeting with Prime Minister Manuel Valls and the interior and defense ministers.

France will now deploy an additional 1,600 police to guard borders, transport facilities and other sensitive sites. Security measures such as identity checks will be introduced at entry to train stations and airports, Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said in a televised statement.

It was reported earlier that the border between France and Belgium had been closed altogether, although Cazeneuve said that was not the case.

Belgium is nestled between the Netherlands, German, France and Luxembourg, and in the heart of the Schengen area – the 26 European countries that have scrapped visas and passport controls at their common borders. Some 3.5 million people cross borders within the zone every day, according to E.U. estimates, raising immense security challenges in an era of stepped-up terror threats.

After Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte convened a ministerial crisis committee, the government announced that border checks were being “stepped up considerably” and “extra measures” will be taken at major railway stations, including expanded patrols by military and border police.

Rutte is expected to discuss with leaders of the other countries neighboring Belgium whether extra measures are needed.

Belgium has itself gone into lockdown after the attacks, with Brussels airport cancelling all flights until at least early Wednesday morning, and the national Coordination Unit for Threat Analysis raising the countrywide threat level to level 4, which means there continues to be a real threat, for “as long as deemed necessary.”

The government has ordered a strengthening of border controls, restrictions on public transport and strengthened military presence at key sites.

Tuesday’s attack has had a major impact on transportation across the region. High speed train service Eurostar, which operates fast-speed trains between London, Paris and Brussels, said its services to Brussels had been cancelled.

German police officers guard a terminal of the airportthe in Frankfurt, Germany, during tighter security measures Tuesday, March 22, 2016, when various explosions hit the Belgian capital Brussels killing several people. (AP Photo/Michael Probst)

In Germany, the national rail operator, Deutsche Bahn, temporarily suspended all trains to the Belgian capital while Berlin’s airports cancelled all flights to Brussels.

Security at airports, train stations and borders has also been enhanced in Britain, the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden and Finland.

Despite strong responses of solidarity and condemnation, and the stepping up of security measures, the key question remains on Europeans’ lips: “How could this happen so soon after Paris?”

Belgium's security and intelligence services have been criticized in recent months. The nation has the most foreign fighters per capita to have joined ISIS, and most prevented attacks have been due to civilian reporting rather than intelligence.

“The frequency, the intensity, of terrorist attacks has increased over the last couple of years tremendously,” Peter Knoope of the International Center for Counter-Terrorism in The Hague said in an interview with Deutsche Welle. “There’s no two ways about it: there has been an intelligence failure.”

The ISIS attacks on Paris last November were planned and carried out from Brussels, and their ringleader, Abdehamid Abaaoud, was Belgium-born.

Tuesday’s attack came just four days after the arrest, in Brussels, of Salah Abdeslam, a most-wanted fugitive suspected of direct involvement in the Paris attacks.

The timing raised some speculation that the attack may be a form of retaliation for his capture. But Michael Horowitz, a security analyst with the Levantine Group, called that “very unlikely,” saying the large-scale attack was more likely planned for months.

Abdeslam is a French citizen, but was born in Brussels and spent most of his life in Molenbeek, a Muslim neighborhood in Brussels. After his arrest he reportedly told investigators he had been planning to target Brussels.

“He was ready to restart something in Brussels,” Belgium’s foreign minister Didier Reynders said at an economic conference on Sunday, adding that “we have found a lot of weapons, heavy weapons, in the first investigations and we have found a new network around him in Brussels.”

It is not yet clear what Tuesday’s attacks – and the fact that attacks are increasing in frequency despite increased security – will mean for the E.U., but analysts expect a new round of debate over border controls. The visa-free Schengen zone agreement has already been under fire, as a result of the intensifying migrant crisis.

Right-wing sentiment is also anticipated to rise, with France’s National Front likely to receive a boost ahead of presidential and legislative elections scheduled for next year. In Germany, the anti-immigration Alternative for Germany party hit record standings in recent regional elections.

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