A Week Later, No Word On When Brussels Will Reopen The Airport

Mar 29, 2016
Originally published on March 31, 2016 1:23 pm

Belgium officials ran a simulation Tuesday at Brussels' Zaventem Airport to figure out if it can at least partially reopen using new security measures demanded by the government.

It's been a week since the March 22 suicide bombings at the airport and on a subway several miles away. Since then, no commercial flights have gone in or out of this European capital and it's unclear when air traffic will resume.

Parts of the Brussels subway have reopened, though soldiers wearing camouflage and armed with assault weapons conduct random security checks that include patdowns and bag searches. Many subway stops are still closed, though officials said all would be opened Wednesday, except for Maelbeek, the site of the suicide bombing.

Air travelers are making alternative plans, which often include taking a train to another country to catch a flight.

I asked airport spokeswoman Florence Muls if she had any sense of when the airport might reopen.

"We hope as soon as possible, but it really depends on the green light of the federal authorities and the police," she said.

Muls says when the airport does reopen, it will only be at 20 percent capacity. And the check-in area that was badly damaged by the bombing will take months to rebuild.

Even a fortified airport will not be a guarantee against a terrorist attack, noted security analyst Claude Moniquet.

"If [terrorists] are absolutely unable to attack the airport, they will attack the metro. And if they can't attack the metro, they will attack the buses – and so on and so on," he said.

Moniquet, who worked for the French intelligence service for 20 years, said Belgium has to do more to minimize the threat. The intelligence services need to hire more people from diverse backgrounds, including Arabic speakers, who can build links with the Muslim communities.

And he feels strongly that Belgium's anti-terrorism laws are too weak. For example: the law prevents police from raiding a home between 9 p.m. and 5 a.m. unless a crime is in progress.

A few days after last November's attacks in Paris, Belgian police got a tip that one of the key suspects - Salah Abdeslam - was hiding in a house in Brussels.
But they had to wait until morning to launch their raid.

"They had the information at 8:30, 9 p.m. at night on a Sunday, and they raided the house at 10 o'clock in the morning the day after," he said.

When police went in, they found Abdeslam's fingerprints, but it took four months to capture him. He was seized on March 18, four days before the Brussels bombings.

Meanwhile, a Belgian parliamentary committee approved a measure Tuesday that would allow police raids 24 hours a day.

Moniquet says firmly that his country is at war. But he believes real change in anti-terrorism laws will be slow to come.

Why?

"I prefer not to comment," he said.

When pressed, and asked if it would take another attack to make significant changes, he said, "It's tragic. That means other people must die. But it is only an opinion."

Outside the Zaventem Airport, passengers who fled the bombing can now go to a cargo area to retrieve their luggage. Emanuel Simeons was there, wheeling his gray suitcase.

He and his wife had just cleared security a week ago when the bombs went off.

Luckily, they had decided not to stop for coffee before going through.

"That decision was a good decision not to drink a coffee in the departure hall," he said.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Today, one week after the terrorist attacks in Brussels, Belgium's justice minister pleaded for an end to accusations of lax security against his government. Now is not the time to fight one another, he said. Quote, "as far as I know, the enemy is in Syria."

Meanwhile, a committee in Belgium's parliament approved new antiterrorism measures. NPR's Melissa Block reports on a city still on edge.

MELISSA BLOCK, BYLINE: Soldiers in camouflage armed with assault weapons conduct random security checks at Brussels metro stations - pat downs and bag searches. And to keep security from being stretched too thin, a lot of metro stops are still closed.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken).

BLOCK: When you ride through the Maelbeek station where one of the suicide bombings took place, black plastic sheeting hides the destruction. And on the outskirts of Brussels, the airport remains closed.

We're standing outside the Zaventem Airport, which was, of course, the scene of one of those deadly suicide bombings. Today officials are running a test, a simulation here to try to figure out if they can at least partially reopen the airport using new security measures that the government has demanded be put into place. When the airport might reopen is completely unclear.

I ask airport spokeswoman Florence Muls if she could give any sense of a timeframe.

FLORENCE MULS: We hope as soon as possible, but it really depends on the green light of the federal authorities and the police.

BLOCK: Muls says when the airport does reopen, it will only be at 20 percent capacity. And the check-in area that was badly damaged by the bombing will take months to rebuild. Even a fortified airport will not prevent a terrorist attack, points out security analyst Claude Moniquet.

CLAUDE MONIQUET: If they're absolutely unable to attack the airport, they will attack the metro. And if they can't attack the metro, they will attack the busses and so on and so on.

BLOCK: Moniquet worked for the French Intelligence Service for 20 years, and he says Belgium has to do more to minimize the terrorist threat. He says the Intelligence Service needs to hire more people from diverse backgrounds who speak Arabic, for example, and can build links with the Muslim communities.

And he feels strongly that Belgium's antiterrorism laws are too weak - for example, the law here that prevents police form raiding a home between 9 at night and 5 in the morning unless a crime is in progress. A few days after the November attacks in Paris, Belgian police got a tip that one of the key suspects, Salah Abdeslam, was hiding in a house in Brussels, but they had to wait to launch their raid.

MONIQUET: They had the information at 8:30, 9 p.m. at night on the Sunday. And they raided the house at 10 o'clock in the morning the day after.

BLOCK: When they went in, they found Abdeslam's fingerprints, but it took four months to capture him. One of the measures the parliamentary committee approved today would allow police raids 24 hours a day. Claude Moniquet say firmly, his country is at war, but he believes real change in antiterrorism laws will be slow to come. Why?

MONIQUET: I prefer not to comment.

BLOCK: Are you implying that it would take another attack here in Brussels to make these changes? You're nodding your head yes. Why won't you comment?

MONIQUET: Because it's tragic. That means that other people must die. But it is only an opinion.

BLOCK: Outside Zaventem Airport, passengers who fled the bombing can now go to a cargo area to retrieve their luggage. And today, Emanuel Simeons was there, wheeling his gray suitcase. He and his wife had just cleared security last Tuesday when the bombs went off. Luckily, they had decided not to stop for coffee before going through.

EMANUEL SIMEONS: That decision was a good decision - not to drink coffee in the departure hall.

BLOCK: Simeons doesn't cast wide blame for the attacks.

SIMEONS: I feel sorry for the Muslim community. Because of a few bad people, radicalists, they give a bad name to Muslims in general.

BLOCK: And that reflects the view of many Belgians we've spoken with this week, a view of tolerance and understanding. Melissa Block, NPR News, Brussels. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.