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Update On Brussels Attacks: What's Known About Links To Paris?


One of the two spots attacked in Brussels today was a Metro station. It is near the headquarters of the European Union, and it is also near the restaurant of Andrea Hauptmann, who says she has spent the morning listening to sirens.

ANDREA HAUPTMANN: Now it is pretty close in front of our door. It is like feeling - we are all scared, and we feel like being at war.

INSKEEP: Feel like being at war, she said. She has nevertheless kept the restaurant open on this Tuesday. Explosions in the Metro station and also at an airport have killed a number of people. The latest figures, certainly subject to change, suggest at least 26 people dead. The witnesses we've heard from this morning include reporter Gabriele Steinhauser of The Wall Street Journal, who's been reporting from the airport.

GABRIELE STEINHAUSER: What I can see from here is that the glass front of the departures hall is blown out. And I saw many people who said that there was a lot of glass shattered, that parts of the ceiling fell down. There was a lot of water from pipes breaking. I saw some people who had head injuries, mostly from being hit by glass.


And let's get a perspective now from Mike Leiter. He's the former director of the National Counterterrorism Center. He's in Washington, D.C. this morning. Good morning to you, Mr. Leiter.

MIKE LEITER: Good morning. How are you?

GREENE: I'm good, thank you. As you listen to the descriptions of those scenes in Brussels, give us your perspective on what we're seeing here.

LEITER: Well, very regrettably, this is something that really haven't seen in Western Europe in this way since 2004, 2005, 2007. We saw this in Madrid and London, we saw it Glasgow in 2007, but it's really only with the rise of ISIS in Syria - and the attacks in Paris and now this attack - that we've seen Western Europe facing such a concentrated, deadly and really sophisticated threat. And we're seeing the challenges of relatively open borders and a fractured intelligence system, which makes it very, very hard to detect and stop these attacks.

GREENE: And, Mr. Leiter, let me just ask you - I mean, you say that we haven't seen these things until recently. And certainly, the Paris attacks brought that city to its knees in many ways. So many voices we've been hearing this morning - memorable ones sort of suggesting helplessness, like that there is nothing a city can do. I mean, can you just describe - I mean, how can you comfort people that there is something that countries like Belgium and France and the United States can do to stop this?

LEITER: Well, it's very true. And clearly, the terrorists want a feeling of helplessness, and we can't give into that. And there are things we can do. Certainly we protected the planes that are flying out of these airports, but there are these softer targets before you get through security, so those areas can be hard. And I think Western Europe is going to have to face the reality that they need a far more integrated security and intelligence system.

The U.S. has that. The U.S. has that with our allies, but there's going to be a need to share. So no security official should guarantee safety, but we can reduce the likelihood of these attacks.

And we have to have a continued engagement with the at-risk communities, the Muslim communities in these countries, to make sure that those communities not only help officials identify individuals who might be at risk of radicalization, but of course reduce the likelihood of people being radicalized in Brussels or going to Syria or anywhere else in Western Europe. So there are things we can do, but there's no guaranteed security.

INSKEEP: Mr. Leiter, suppose you were still in your chair at the National Counterterrorism Center and you walked in and knew what we believe we know now, that there were two attacks in Brussels - one on the airport, one on a Metro station - a number of people are killed.

This comes a few days after the arrest in Brussels of a prime suspect in the Paris attacks of a few months ago. This is what you know. What questions would you be asking? What actions would you be wanting to take at this moment?

LEITER: A couple. First, I would want to know exactly why we hadn't mapped the network out better since Paris. And I would be very, very concerned that encrypted communications played a role in making it more difficult for officials to understand what other cells might have been out there after Paris and after this arrest.

Second, I would absolutely put precautionary means - measures in place across the U.S. to make sure there were no other following attacks.

And finally, I would use this as an opportunity to engage more forcefully within the European Union to make sure that border controls, intelligence sharing and real security are very, very much priorities for the European Union and the domestic governments in Western Europe.

INSKEEP: Now you raised a question there. You said, why didn't counter-terrorism officials do a better job of mapping the network of people? Let's talk about what that network would be, as far as is known anyway.

NPR counter-terrorism correspondent Dean Temple-Raston is with us next from New York City once again this morning. And Dina, what is known about this network if in fact the network of Paris attackers is linked in some way to these attacks today?

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON, BYLINE: Well, when the Paris attacker Saleh Abdelsalam was arrested on Friday, Belgian authorities and French authorities immediately came out and said the network that was behind him was much broader than they thought. In particular, he's been hiding out for four months, there's been a giant manhunt all over Europe for him, and he's been able to evade authorities.

After he was arrested, they also put out a most wanted bulletin out for a man who had been an associate of his whose fingerprint was actually found on the November 13 bombs. His name was Najim Laachraoui. And there was real concern that he might have been planning something independently, and that's why officials were so eager to find him.

INSKEEP: And it was thought that there were dozens of people still on the loose after Abdelsalam was arrested earlier - a few days ago?

TEMPLE-RASTON: The Belgian officials had said that they had sort of singled out 30 individuals that they thought had something to do with the attacks. I mean, Mike Leiter will know more about this, but as a general rule of thumb the idea is that for every front-line terrorist that you have, they require some sort of logistical support of three to five people. So if you're talking about 10 people who were involved with the Paris attacks, you know, that gets to be quite a large network.

GREENE: Mr. Leiter, does that sound about right to you, that - what Dina's describing, that model?

LEITER: I think Dina is right given the sophistication of the attacks we've seen. In many less sophisticated attacks in the U.S. and Western Europe, we've often seen the entire cell go out and do most everything. But as Dina's reporting has shown, I think there's undoubtedly a web of support here that kept Saleh Abdelsalam safe, that allowed them to plan and allowed them to experiment, likely, with explosives, which made these bombs so effective where others in the U.S. and in the U.K. in the past have failed.

GREENE: We just have about 15 seconds left. I mean, a lot of people are going to interpret this attack in Brussels as that Western countries are really failing in fighting, you know, these types of extremist forces. Is that fair?

LEITER: I don't think it's fair. I think if you look at period since 9/11, the West has been very successful. But that doesn't mean this fight is over. We have a small group of Muslims in the world who are radicalized and motivated to commit violence. We can stop some of it, but not all, and this is highlighting the challenge once again.

GREENE: OK, Mike Leiter is former director of the National Counterterrorism Center. Thanks very much.

LEITER: Thank you.

GREENE: And we also heard from NPR's Dina Temple-Raston. Thanks, Dina.

TEMPLE-RASTON: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.