Monday

18th Feb 2019

US nationals injured in Brussels attacks, others missing

  • Kerry in Brussels on Friday to discuss counter-terrorism cooperation and Syria war (Photo: state.gov)

About 12 US nationals were hurt in the Brussels attacks, the state department has confirmed during a briefing in which officials defended Belgium's security services.

“We’re aware of approximately a dozen US citizens who were injured in the attacks,” department spokesman Mark Toner told press in Washington on Wednesday (23 March).

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  • Tribute to victims in Brussels: US hit back at criticism of Belgian security services and scaremongering on refugees (Photo: Alice Latta)

“We are not aware of any US citizen deaths,” he said, but added that “a number of US citizens remain unaccounted for”.

“We still have not accounted for every official US government employee or their family members,” he said.

“There’s a number of injured in hospitals around the city and we’re still trying to gain access and trying to determine the identity of those … individuals.”

He said there was a large number of Americans in Brussels because of its three embassies – one each for the EU, Nato and Belgium. It is also a popular destination for tourists, business travellers and students.

Initial media reports said a bomb was detonated next to American Airlines desks at the airport in Brussels.

The reports were wrong. But Toner said it was up to Belgium to determine whether the attacks targeted US citizens or whether they were “just a hit” on transport hubs.

The US has issued travel warnings for Brussels, Ankara and Istanbul.

Toner said his department had no information on “a specific threat” but he said: “We believe that Daesh [Islamic State], al-Qaeda, and other terrorist groups continue to plan near-term attacks throughout Europe … those attacks could target sporting events, tourist sites, restaurants.”

He said the travel warning was “in no way to discourage or to recommend that Americans do not travel” to Europe.

In terms of Europeans coming to the US, he said the Brussels attacks would not lead to further restrictions in US visa-waiver schemes with EU states.

He said the programme did not mean that a waiver-state national “simply hops off a plane and gets off in JFK [an airport in New York] or wherever and strolls into the United States unaccounted for or unscreened”.

He also said the US would keep on taking in Syrian refugees.

He said “these families are the most screened security-wise of any people to come into the United States”.

He added that “almost 100 percent of them” were “victims” who were “fleeing the same kind of violence … that we’ve seen in Belgium”.

Armchair critics

Some US politicians have mocked Belgium’s security services for failing to stop the attacks.

Toner said that even though the suspects had criminal records there was “no indication that they were radicalised extremists”.

“It’s difficult to infiltrate some of these small cells and networks,” he said.

“We have to be right 100 percent of the time; they just have to be right, or successful, one time.

“There’s always a degree of Monday morning quarterbacking that comes after an event like this,” he said, using an American football analogy equivalent to the English phrase “armchair criticism”.

He said that when US secretary of state John Kerry visits the Belgian and EU capital on Friday he would discuss “how we can increase our collaboration on counter-terrorism.”

Intelligence cooperation

He said the US and EU states were working on “improving screening measures and tracking capabilities for some of these foreign fighters”, referring to EU nationals who trained with Islamic State in Syria or Iraq and returned to Europe.

Kerry will also update EU officials on his talks in Moscow with Russian president Vladimir Putin on the Syria war.

Some US buildings in Washington flew their flags at half-mast to show sympathy with Belgium.

They did not make a similar gesture after any of the recent attacks in Turkey, but Toner said: “It in no way should be interpreted as showing any disrespect.”

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