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.
“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.