The Islamic State terror group threatened the US and European countries with continued attacks early Wednesday, hours after taking responsibility for a series of blasts in Brussels that left at least 34 people dead, and as police is Brussels carried out a massive manhunt for suspects in the attacks.
A statement from the group promised “dark days” for countries allied against the Islamic State.
“What is to come will be more devastating and bitter,” reads the statement directed against “crusader nations allied in their war against the Islamic State,” a reference to the US-led coalition bombing the group’s positions in Syria and Iraq.
The communique was published in Arabic, French, and English according to the SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors jihadi websites.
IS also released photos purportedly showing its fighters in Syria giving out candy to children to celebrate the Brussels attacks, according to SITE.
— Rita Katz (@Rita_Katz) March 22, 2016
Twitter accounts linked to the group also distributed a picture of a fighter standing above a beheaded Statue of Liberty.
Three intelligence officials in Iraq told the AP that they had warned European colleagues last month of IS plans to attack airports and trains, although Belgium wasn’t specified as a likely target. The officials, who monitor activities in the IS stronghold of Raqqa, Syria, said Brussels may have become a target because of the arrest of jihadist Saleh Abdeslam.
One of the officials — all of whom spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk about their knowledge of IS operations — said Iraqi intelligence officials believe that three other IS activists remain at large in Brussels and are plotting other suicide-bomb attacks.
Security was stepped up across the world in the wake of the attacks, with European officials shutting down some transport hubs in the immediate aftermath of the twin attacks, which struck the heart of Belgium.
Justice ministers and interior ministers from across the 28-nation EU planned an emergency meeting, possibly Thursday morning, to assess the fallout. The subway blast hit beneath buildings that normally host EU meetings and house the union’s top leadership.
In an earlier claim of responsibility, the Islamic State group said its members detonated suicide vests both at the airport and in the subway.
Bloodied and dazed travelers staggered from the airport after two explosions — at least one blamed on a suicide attacker and another apparently on a suitcase bomb — tore through crowds checking in for morning flights. About 40 minutes later, another rush-hour blast ripped through a subway car in central Brussels as it left the Maalbeek station, in the heart of the European Union’s capital city.
The Belgian government said at least 11 people were killed at the airport, while others put the figure at 14. A security official said at least 34 people in total were killed in the bombings at the airport and a subway train.
Peru’s Foreign Ministry identified the first fatality as 37-year-old Peruvian Adelma Tapia Ruiz.
Belgian authorities released a photo Tuesday taken from closed-circuit TV footage of three men pushing luggage carts in the airport, saying two of them apparently were suicide bombers and that the third — dressed in a light-colored coat, black hat and glasses — was at large. They urged the public to reach out to police if they recognized him.
The two men believed to be the suicide attackers apparently were wearing dark gloves on their left hands, possibly to hide detonators.
Police helicopters hovered over the city late into the night and raids were under way across Belgium, prosecutors said, adding that a nail-filled bomb, an Islamic State flag and chemicals had been found in one apartment in the Schaerbeek neighborhood.
European security officials have been bracing for a major attack for weeks and warned that IS was actively preparing to strike. The arrest Friday of Salah Abdeslam, a key suspect in the November 13 attacks in Paris, heightened those fears, as investigators said many more people were involved than originally thought and that some are still on the loose.
A US administration official said American intelligence officers were working with their European counterparts to try to identify the apparently skilled bomb-maker or makers involved in the Brussels attacks and to identify any links to the bombs used in Paris.
The official, who wasn’t authorized to speak publicly on the investigations and demanded anonymity, told The Associated Press that at least one of the bombs at the airport was suspected to have been packed into a suitcase left in the departures hall.
Several Americans were among the wounded, including an Air Force lieutenant colonel stationed in the Netherlands, his wife and four children who were at the airport. Mormon church officials, meanwhile, said three of its missionaries from Utah were seriously injured in the blasts and were hospitalized. One Israeli was also lightly hurt, Jerusalem said.
The fact that extremists were able to hit high-profile targets in Brussels, capital of the European Union, just months after IS militants killed 130 people in Paris, will raise fresh questions about the Continent’s ability to prevent terrorism.
It also underscored doubts about how Belgium has allowed extremism to develop unchecked, coming days after the arrest in Brussels of key Paris attacks suspect Salah Abdeslam following four months on the run.
Abdeslam told investigators he was planning to “restart something” from Brussels, said Belgian Foreign Minister Didier Reynders. He said Sunday that authorities took the claim seriously because “we found a lot of weapons, heavy weapons in the first investigations and we have seen a new network of people around him in Brussels.”
While Belgian authorities knew that some kind of extremist act was being prepared in Europe, “we never could have imagined something of this scale,” Belgian Interior Minister Jan Jambon said.
Officials at the airport in the Brussels suburb of Zaventem said police had discovered a Kalashnikov assault rifle and an explosives-packed vest abandoned at the facility, offering one potential lead for forensic evidence. Bomb disposal experts safely dismantled that explosive device.
Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull on Wednesday said Europe had “allowed security to slip,” as he questioned the EU’s Schengen passport-free zone in the wake of the Brussels attacks.
The Australian leader said while it was up to Europe to set its policies, his nation’s border protection measures and domestic security arrangements “are much stronger than they are in Europe where regrettably they allowed security to slip.”
“That weakness in European security is not unrelated to the problems they’ve been having in recent times,” he told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, alluding to the wave of migrants who have flooded into the continent, many of them from Syria.
In Israel, Science, Technology and Space Minister Ofir Akunis suggested Europeans had ignored the danger of “Islamic terror cells” and focused on criticizing Israel instead.
While offering condolences over the deadly bombings, Akunis also hit out at Europe over its labeling of products from Israeli settlements.
“I will repeat: many in Europe have preferred to occupy themselves with the folly of condemning Israel, labeling products, and boycotts,” Akunis, an ally of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, said on his Facebook page. “In this time, underneath the nose of the Continent’s citizens, thousands of extremist Islamic terror cells have grown. There were those who repressed and mocked whoever tried to give warning. There were those who underestimated.”
His comments were derided by opposition leader Isaac Herzog.
Others in Israel condemned the attack while linking it to Palestinian terror faced by Israel.
Leaders of the 28-nation EU said in a joint statement that Tuesday’s assault on Brussels “only strengthens our resolve to defend European values and tolerance from the attacks of the intolerant.”
AFP contributed to this report.