In the wake of yesterday’s terrorist atrocities in Belgium, Mark Rowley (the National Police Chiefs’ Council’s lead on counter-terrorism) has put forward salient security advice for members of the public while at the same time outlining what’s being done in the UK to ramp up protection measures across key locations nationwide.
Twin bomb blasts struck the main terminal at Zaventem International Airport at around 7.00 am GMT on Tuesday. Another explosion at the Maelbeek Metro Station – located not far from the European Union’s headquarters building – occurred an hour later. According to Brussels transport operator STIB, the blast occurred when a three-carriage train was leaving the station headed for Arts-Loi, the next stop which is only a short distance away. The bomb was apparently detonated in the middle carriage.
Two of the men who carried out the suicide attacks have been named by Belgian media (including RTBF) as brothers Khalid el-Bakraoui and Brahim el-Bakraoui. According to Belgian media this morning, and quoting judicial sources, a third male being hunted by police – who’s named Najim Laachraoui – is still being tracked down.
So-called Islamic State has claimed responsibility for the attacks, which are thought to have been initiated after the capture in Brussels four days ago of Salah Abdeslam, the main suspect in the Jihadist attacks carried out in Paris on 13 November last year.
“Our thoughts are with the people of Brussels following these horrific attacks,” commented Mark Rowley QPM, assistant commissioner with responsibility for specialist operations at the Metropolitan Police Service.
“As a precautionary measure, police forces across the UK have increased policing presence at key locations, including transport hubs, in order to protect the public and provide reassurance. This isn’t in relation to any specific information or intelligence.”
Rowley continued: “In London specifically, the Metropolitan Police Service has mobilised additional officers who will carry out highly visible patrols at key locations around the capital including the transport network. The number of officers deployed will be regularly assessed. These additional officers are deployed as part of reassurance measures.”
In addition, Rowley outlined: “The policing presence across London and the rest of the UK is constantly under review. We’re in close liaison with the Belgiam authorities and will continue to monitor the situation.”
The threat posed to the UK from international terrorism remains at the ‘Severe’ level (one down from the highest rating of ‘Critical’) as it has been since August 2014. This means that an attack on the UK mainland is highly likely.
Rowley concluded: “We urge members of the public and businesses to be alert, but not alarmed, and to report anything suspicious to the confidential Anti-Terrorist Hotline on 0800 789 321. In an emergency, always call 999.”
Specialist COBR meetings
Prime Minister David Cameron has already chaired two COBR meetings – the first taking place yesterday afternoon and the second early this morning – focused on the UK Government’s response to the terrorist attacks in Brussels. The meetings have involved high-ranking Government officials and senior representatives from the police service.
A Downing Street spokesperson said: “We are concerned about one missing British national and are in close contact with the Belgian authorities. We’re aware of four British nationals who were injured in the attacks. Three are being treated in hospital, while the other has already been discharged. Our Embassy staff are working to assist all British nationals who’ve been affected.”
In terms of travel to and from Belgium, the Government continues to advise people to follow the advice of the Belgian authorities. There’s no longer any advice in place against travel to Brussels. British nationals in Belgium should remain alert and vigilant, stay away from crowded places and follow the instructions of the Belgian authorities.
The Government spokesperson added: “Here in the UK, we’ve stepped up the security presence at a number of locations across the country and will continue to do so in the coming days.”
Government departments observed a minute’s silence at 11.00 am this morning in memory of the attacks on Belgium and those who have suffered at the hands of the terrorists. Reports suggest that over 30 people were killed and upwards of 250 injured in the attacks.
The Prime Minister will update MPs at the start of Prime Minister’s Questions this afternoon. This is to be followed by a statement from the Home Secretary Theresa May setting out in some degree of detail the Government’s response to the attacks on the Belgian capital.
Statement issued by the British Transport Police
Following the tragic events in Brussels, Assistant Chief Constable Steve Thomas from the British Transport Police explained: “The safety of the travelling public and rail staff in England, Scotland and Wales remains our absolute priority. The British Transport Police will continue to station highly visible officers across the train and London Underground networks and, as a precaution following the events in Brussels, we’re deploying extra resources at key locations.”
Thomas added: “This doesn’t mean we have specific intelligence about those stations where the officers are posted, only that we’re prepared for any eventuality. We ask that you take particular care for keeping your personal belongings with you at all times. At a time when sensitivity is heightened, a misplaced bag or a piece of forgotten luggage could present a serious cause for concern. That’s something which is easily avoidable.”
In conclusion, Thomas observed: “Tackling those who seek to disrupt our way of life is never going to be easy, but by dint of the public and the authorities working together we can manage the risks to the best possible level.”
Assistance from Europol
Europol has condemned “in the most categorical terms” what it calls the “heinous attacks” carried out in Brussels and extends its deepest condolences to the families and friends of all the victims.
Further, Europol’s European Counter-Terrorism Centre has offered its full assistance to the Belgian authorities which includes making available Europol’s unique intelligence tools and databases dedicated to combating various terrorist threats.
“These attacks are a further reminder of the volatile terrorist threat Europe is facing in this day and age,” said Europol’s director Rob Wainwright. “Working with its security partners in the EU and beyond, Europol is determined to fight terrorism in all its aspects and in all of its manifestations. To this end, our action must continue to be part of a comprehensive approach based on the strengthening of resources to thwart the actions of terrorist networks, their financing and, indeed, their online reach.”
Investment in security and collaboration “key to beating terrorism”
Speaking about the terrorist attacks in Brussels, Frost & Sullivan’s aerospace, defence and security director Edward Marsh stated: “Questions have been raised over the spending that has gone into making our cities safer and why security has once again been breached. It’s important to highlight that Governments are investing to strengthen security. Belgium self-pledged an additional 450 million Euros to counter extremism and radicalisation. Prime Minister Michel was forward in the assessment that the police are currently undermanned, while we know there are an estimated 300,000 surveillance cameras across the country.”
Marsh continued: “Significant spending has been seen across other EU countries. Here in the UK, there’s a 15% increase in staff for the Security and Intelligence Services, an additional £1.9 billion allocated through the Strategic Defence Review for Special Forces equipment and the decision not to cut front line policing. For its part, France has seen almost 2,000 extra intelligence staff placed in post and a focus on boarder security, not to mention national infrastructure where additional police and gendarme have been introduced.”
According to Marsh, all of this spending is welcomed and seen as a positive in terms of further projecting the safety and security of European cities.
“However, there must be a balance in spending. We’ve seen funding allocated to front line staff, police and security personnel which will undoubtedly assist with boosting public confidence, but spending on technology must also continue. Yesterday’s attack at Zaventem International Airport happened within the terminal at check-in desks, in public areas where access isn’t restricted in most European countries. In addition, Governments need to do everything they can to help collaboration and assist data and information to move effectively and efficiently.”
In the wake of Brussels, we’ve heard both Prime Minister David Cameron and France’s President François Hollande call for a strengthening of EU co-operation in the fight against what now appears to be a very real and raw threat.
“We must continue to put every security measure possible into place across major infrastructure, policing and technology,” concluded Marsh. “Ultimately, such security moves will only be successful if the information gathered as a result of systems deployment is shared and intelligence really does then stretch across Europe’s intelligence and security agencies.”