2016 Brussels bombings

On 22 March 2016, two coordinated terrorist attacks in Brussels, Belgium were carried out by the Islamic State. Three coordinated suicide bombings occurred: two at Brussels Airport in Zaventem, and one at Maalbeek metro station on the Brussels metro.[10] 32 civilians and three perpetrators were killed, and more than 300 people were injured. Another bomb was found during a search of the airport. The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) claimed responsibility for the attacks.[11]

2016 Brussels bombings
Part of Islamic terrorism in Europe (the spillover of the Syrian Civil War)
  • Map of the bombings in relation to each other
  • (1) 07:58: Departure hall of Brussels Airport
  • (2) 09:11: Maalbeek metro station
LocationBrussels Airport in Zaventem and Maalbeek metro station in Brussels, Belgium
Date22 March 2016
07:58–09:11 (UTC+1)
TargetCivilians and transport hubs
Attack type
Suicide bombings, nail bombing, mass murder
WeaponsTATP explosives
Deaths35 (32 victims,[a] 3 perpetrators)[1][2]
Injured340[3] (62 critical)[4][5]
PerpetratorsIslamic State[6]
MotiveIslamic extremism

The perpetrators belonged to a terrorist cell that had been involved in the November 2015 Paris attacks. The Brussels bombings happened shortly after a series of police raids targeting the group. The bombings were the deadliest attack on Belgium since World War II. The Belgian government declared three days of national mourning.


Belgium was a participant in the military intervention against ISIL during the War in Iraq. In September 2014, the Belgian Chamber of Representatives voted to send six F-16s for one month to support the US-led coalition.[12]

Belgium had more nationals fighting for jihadist forces as a proportion of its population than any other Western European country, with an estimated 440 Belgians having left for Syria and Iraq as of January 2015.[13][14] The Guardian cited estimates suggesting that Belgium had supplied the highest per capita number of fighters to Syria of any European nation, with 350 to 550 fighters, out of a total population of 11 million that includes fewer than 500,000 Muslims.[15] Some reports have claimed Belgium's weak security apparatus and competing intelligence agencies made it a hub of jihadist-recruiting and terrorist activity,[16] while others assert that Belgium faces the same problems as many European countries in this regard.[17] According to Kenneth Lasoen, security expert at Ghent University, the attacks happened more as a result of policy failure rather than intelligence failure.[18]

Terrorist cells in BrusselsEdit

Before the bombings, several Islamist terrorist attacks had originated from Belgium, and a number of counter-terrorist operations had been carried out there.[19] Between 2014 and 2015, the number of wiretapping and surveillance operations directed at suspected terrorists by Belgian intelligence almost doubled.[20] In May 2014, a gunman with ties to the Syrian Civil War attacked the Jewish Museum of Belgium in Brussels, killing four people.[21][22] In January 2015, anti-terrorist operations against a group thought to be planning a second Charlie Hebdo shooting had included raids in Brussels and Zaventem. The operation resulted in the deaths of two suspects.[23][24] In August 2015, a suspected terrorist shot and stabbed passengers aboard a high-speed train on its way from Amsterdam to Paris via Brussels, before he was subdued by passengers.[25]

The perpetrators involved in the November 2015 attacks in Paris were based in Molenbeek, and Brussels was locked down for five days to allow the police to search for suspects with the military standing guard.[26] On 18 March 2016, 4 days before the bombings, Salah Abdeslam and another suspect in the Paris attacks were captured after two anti-terrorist raids in Brussels. A third suspect was killed during one of the raids.[27][28][29] During interrogation, Abdeslam was presented with photographs of the Bakraoui siblings, who would later be suspected of committing the attacks in Brussels three days later.[30] Belgian investigators believe that Abdeslam's arrest may have hastened the Brussels bombings.[31] According to the Belgian Interior Minister, Jan Jambon, who spoke after the bombings, authorities knew of preparations for an extremist act in Europe, but they underestimated the scale of the attack.[32]


Timeline of attacks
  • 7:55 – The three suspected attackers arrived at the airport in a taxi.[33]
  • 7:58 – Two explosions occurred in the airport's check-in area, 9 seconds apart.[34][35]
  • 8:20 – Rail transport to the airport is halted; road closures begin.[36]
  • 9:04 – Belgium raises the terror threat level to its highest level.[37]
  • 9:11 – Explosion in Brussels Maalbeek metro station kills at least 20 people.[38]
  • 9:27 – All public transport is suspended in the city.[36]
  • 11:15 – Eurostar rail journeys between London and Brussels are cancelled until further notice.[39]
  • 17:14 – Belgian police detonate a suspicious package at Brussels Airport.[40]
  • 19:30 – A police raid in Schaerbeek finds a nail bomb and an ISIL flag.[41]
All times are CET (UTC+1).

There were three coordinated attacks: two nail bombings at Brussels Airport, and one bombing at Maalbeek metro station.[36]

Brussels AirportEdit

Two suicide bombers, carrying explosives in large suitcases, attacked a departure hall at Brussels Airport in Zaventem. The first explosion occurred at 07:58 in check-in row 11; the second explosion occurred about nine seconds later in check-in row 2. The suicide bombers were visible in CCTV footage.[42] Some witnesses said that before the first explosion occurred, shots were fired and there were yells in Arabic. However, authorities have stated afterwards that no shots were fired.[43][44][45]

A third suicide bomber left the airport without detonating his bomb; media speculated at the time that he may have been prevented from detonating his own bomb by the force of a previous explosion.[46] The third bomb was found in a search of the airport and was later destroyed by a controlled explosion.[40] Belgium's federal prosecutor confirmed that the suicide bombers had detonated nail bombs.[47]

Maalbeek metro stationEdit

Another explosion took place just over an hour later in the middle carriage of a three-carriage train at Maalbeek metro station, located near the European Commission headquarters in the centre of Brussels, 10 kilometres (6 mi) from Brussels Airport. The explosion occurred at 09:11 CET.[36][48][49]

The train was travelling on line 5 towards the city centre, and was pulling out of Maalbeek station when the bomb exploded.[50][51][52] The driver immediately stopped the train and helped to evacuate the passengers.[53][54] The Brussels Metro was subsequently shut down at 09:27.[36]


Deaths by citizenship
Citizenship Deaths
  Belgium 14
  United States 4[55]
  Netherlands 3[56]
  Sweden 2[57]
  Democratic Republic of Congo 1[58]
  China 1[59]
  India 1[60]
  Italy[b] 1[61]
  Morocco[c] 1[62]
  Germany 1[63]
  Peru 1[64]
  Poland 1[65]
  United Kingdom 1[66]
Total 32

In the bombings, 35 people, including three suicide bombers, were killed and over 300 others were injured, 62 critically. Including the attackers, seventeen bodies were recovered at Brussels Airport and fourteen at the metro station.[67] Four people later died of their wounds in hospital.[68] Eighty-one others were injured at the airport, while the rest were injured at the metro station.[69] The bombings were the deadliest attack on Belgium since World War II.[70]

Fourteen of the deceased were Belgian nationals, four were Americans, three from the Netherlands, two from Sweden and the remaining nine hailed from a different nation.[67] Among the fatalities at Zaventem was retired diplomat André Adam, who had served as Belgian Permanent Representative to the United Nations and as Ambassador to the United States.[71][72]

Six years after the event, in 2022, a 23-year-old Belgian woman from Kontich decided to be euthanized due to "intolerable psychological suffering". On the day of the attacks, the then 17-year-old was waiting in line at Brussels Airport to leave for a school trip to Rome, Italy.[73][74][75]


Still from CCTV footage showing Najim Laachraoui (left), Ibrahim El Bakraoui (centre), and Mohamed Abrini (right).[8][76][77][78]


A total of five attackers were involved, with three of them dying in suicide bombings and the remaining two arrested in the weeks after. All had involvement in the planning and organization of the November 2015 Paris attacks. They were identified and named as:

  • Ibrahim El Bakraoui: aged 29. Committed a suicide bombing at Brussels Airport. In 2010, he had been involved in an attempted robbery at a currency exchange office and a subsequent shootout with police that left one officer injured. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison but was paroled in 2014 under the condition that he did not leave the country; he was sought by authorities when he violated those conditions.
  • Najim Laachraoui: aged 24. Committed a suicide bombing at Brussels Airport alongside Ibrahim El Bakraoui. He reportedly travelled to Syria in 2013, under a false ID.
  • Mohamed Abrini: born 27 December 1984. Abrini assisted Ibrahim El Bakraoui and Najim Laachraoui in the airport bombings but failed to detonate his bomb and was arrested on 8 April 2016. He was a childhood friend of brothers Salah Abdeslam and Brahim Adbeslam, who were both involved in the November 2015 attacks in Paris. On 29 June 2022 at a court in Paris, Abrini was convicted of involvement in the attacks and received a sentence of life imprisonment with a minimum term of 22 years.[79]
  • Khalid El Bakraoui: aged 27, the younger brother of Ibrahim El Bakraoui. Committed the suicide bombing at the Maalbeek metro station. In 2011, he was convicted of several carjackings, the possession of a number of Kalashnikov rifles, and a 2009 bank robbery and kidnapping. After being released in 2015, El Bakraoui failed to appear for his parole appointments and abandoned his address. He was later served with three arrest warrants, one from Interpol, one international, and one European.
  • Osama Krayem: aged 24. Krayem accompanied Khalid El Bakraoui to the suicide bombing on the metro but failed to detonate his explosives. When he was eleven, he participated in a Swedish documentary film about the integration of migrants into Swedish society. Krayem is believed to have been radicalized by videos of Anwar al-Awlaki, and to have been fighting for ISIL since 2014. On 29 June 2022 at the Paris attacks trial, Krayem was sentenced to 30 years in prison.[79]

In security camera video of Brussels Airport, Ibrahim El Bakraoui, Laachraoui, and Abrini were seen pushing suitcases believed to have contained the bombs that exploded in the departure hall.[49] A taxi driver who drove them to the airport said he tried to help the men with their luggage but they ordered him away.[32] Initial reports elaborated El Bakraoui and Laachraoui each apparently wearing a glove which may have concealed detonators to the explosives.[80] This was later proven to be untrue, with both being barehanded.[81]


Within 90 minutes of the airport attack, the area around an apartment in Schaerbeek, a northern district of Brussels, was cordoned off by police. The authorities received a tip-off from a taxi driver once they released photos of the suspects several hours after the attacks.[82] Inside the home, they discovered a nail bomb, 15 kilograms (33 lb) of acetone peroxide, 151 litres (33 imp gal; 40 US gal) of acetone, nearly 30 litres (7 imp gal; 8 US gal) of hydrogen peroxide, other ingredients for explosives, and an ISIL flag.[41][83] At least one resident reported unusual smells to the police, resulting in Agent de Quartier policeman Philippe Swinnen visiting the building twice in three months, but not entering.[84]

Authorities also found a laptop belonging to Ibrahim El Bakraoui, inside a waste container near the house.[85] The laptop had a suicide note stored on it, in which Ibrahim stated that he was "stressed out", felt unsafe, and was "afraid of ever-lasting eternity".[86] It also contained images of the home and the office of the Belgian Prime Minister, Charles Michel, among information on multiple other locations in Brussels.[87]

Numerous related arrests followed the bombings. As of 26 March, twelve men had been arrested in connection with the bombings.[88] The FBI's Next Gen Identification System facial recognition software helped facilitate the identification of the "man with the hat" on CCTV footage as Mohamed Abrini.[89] On 3 January 2018, a hard disk containing victims' autopsy reports was stolen from a medical examiner's office in the Portalis court building in Brussels. A 27-year-old male suspect was arrested.[90][91]


ISIL claimed responsibility for the attacks later on the same day, saying that Belgium had been attacked as "a country participating in the internation coalition against the Islamic State".[92]

Raids and searches were made across Belgium, while security was heightened in a number of countries as a result of the attacks.[93][94]


Digital billboard in Brussels. It reads, in French, "Stay where you are, avoid all movement, prioritise communications by text message or social media."
People gathering, chalk drawings and flowers for the victims. The largest message says (translated from French), Brussels is beautiful, with further inscriptions of Stop violence, Stop war, Unity, and Humanity.

Authorities temporarily halted air traffic to the airport and evacuated the terminal buildings.[43] The airport was to be closed to passenger traffic and reopening date postponed several times with a projected reopening date of 29 March.[95] The Berlaymont building, which is near Maalbeek station and is the headquarters of the European Commission, was placed in lockdown. Controlled explosions were carried out on suspicious objects around Maalbeek station.[96]

All public transport in the capital was shut down as a result of the attacks.[97] Brussels-North, Brussels-Central, and Brussels-South stations were evacuated and closed, and Eurostar journeys to Brussels Midi station were cancelled. All trains from Paris to Brussels were also cancelled. Taxis in Brussels transported passengers free-of-charge for the duration of the lockdown.[98] Paris Nord railway station, with services to Brussels, was also temporarily closed.[99]

The National Security Council raised the terror alert level in the country to the highest level following the attacks.[100] The government warned that some perpetrators might still be at large and urged citizens to reach friends and family using social media to avoid congesting the telephone networks.[101] The threat level was lowered again on 24 March, and the government expanded the military protection of potential targets, that had been in place since January 2015, to include more soft targets and public places (Operation Vigilant Guardian).[102]

The country's two nuclear power plants – Tihange and Doel – were partially evacuated as a precaution.[103]

Temporary border checks were implemented by Belgian and French authorities at some major crossings on the France-Belgium border.[104]

The federal government announced three days of national mourning,[105] lasting from Tuesday until Thursday, and flags were flown at half-mast on public buildings.[106] They also held a one-minute silence at noon local time on 23 March,[105] which ended with spontaneous applause and chants of "Vive la Belgique" in Place de la Bourse.[107]

Also on 23 March, Belgian Muslim groups, such as the League of Imams in Belgium and Executive of the Muslims in Belgium, publicly condemned the bombings and expressed their condolences to the victims and their families.[108]

The airport was closed on 22 March, with reopening postponed several times. On 29 March, an operational test was performed. The official reopening date was scheduled to be announced on 30 March.[109] A post-reopening target of 800–1,000 passengers per hour was projected, compared to pre-bombing traffic of 5,000 passengers per hour. The delay in the reopening was attributed to extensive damage to the building's infrastructure. A temporary terminal was planned for use after the reopening.[110] When the airport reopened, only Brussels Airlines would serve the airport, but other airlines would be allowed to return later.[111]

On 29 March, it was revealed that Ibrahim and Khalid El Bakraoui were released from prison due to a law introduced in 1888 known as Lejeune, which allows inmates to be released after serving a third of their sentence. Belgian Interior Minister Jan Jambon stated that the governing parties had agreed to update the law in 2014. The Lejeune law first came under scrutiny after serial killer and child molester Marc Dutroux was released from prison in 1992.[112]

Airport businesses were affected. Hotel closures included the Sheraton Brussels Airport Hotel[113] and Four Points by Sheraton Brussels.[114] Cargo flights resumed on 23 March.[115] Car rental offices were also closed.[116]

Following memorials to the victims, disturbances broke out, resulting in riot police using water cannons to disperse violent right-wing protesters against ISIL.[117][118][119]

On 30 March, plans to reopen the airport were cancelled again due to a strike by airport police over a dispute over inadequate security.[120] The dispute was resolved, and the airport was later scheduled to be reopened on 3 April. On that day, a Brussels Airlines flight left for Faro and a flight to Athens and Turin was scheduled for the same day. Upon reopening, only passengers were allowed to enter a temporary departure hall and security checkpoints were implemented at the roadway to the airport. Only car and taxi traffic were allowed to enter but public transit remained suspended.[121] Hotel business revenue in Brussels had been cut in half since the airport closure.[122]

On 1 April, religious leaders in Brussels gathered together for a memorial to the victims of the bombings. They expressed their desire to spread a religious message of unity throughout Belgium, and to combat extremism.[123]

On 25 April, the Maalbeek metro station reopened with heightened security.[124] On 1 May, the departure hall of Brussels Airport, which had sustained the most damage during the bombings, partially reopened with the airport on high alert.[125]

The mayor of Molenbeek district, Francoise Schepmans, responded by closing some mosques for "incendiary language".[126] It was also determined that of 1,600 nonprofit organisations registered in the district, 102 had links to criminal activities, 51 of which to religious radicalism or terrorism.[127]

Other countriesEdit

Soon after news of the attacks broke, security was increased, particularly at airports, railway stations and other transport hubs, in China,[128] Denmark,[129][130] France,[131] Germany,[98] Greece,[132] Indonesia,[133] Ireland,[134] Italy,[135] Japan,[136] Malaysia,[137] Malta,[138] the Netherlands,[139][140][141] the Philippines,[142] Thailand,[143] the United Kingdom,[93][144] and the United States.[145] Also, Portugal evacuated the check-in section for 20 minutes due to a suspicious abandoned bag.[146] In addition, Israel stopped flights from Europe for the rest of the day;[147] additional police were deployed to the Belgian border with the Netherlands;[148] the United Kingdom's Foreign and Commonwealth Office said the Belgian authorities were advising against non-essential travel to Brussels;[149][150] and officials at the U.S. Embassy in Brussels warned of the possibility of more attacks, recommending "sheltering in place and avoiding all public transportation".[151]


The sculpture Flight in Mind by Belgian artist Olivier Strebelle was damaged in the attacks. After some months of restoration the sculpture was relocated to an outdoor area of the airport. It is seen here on the 1st anniversary of the attacks.

In a televised address to the nation on 22 March, King Philippe expressed his and Queen Mathilde's sorrow at the events. He offered their full support to members of the emergency and security services.[152]

Hours after the attack the French-language hashtag #JeSuisBruxelles (#IamBrussels) and images of the Belgian comic character Tintin crying trended on social media sites. Also, hashtags such as #ikwilhelpen (#Iwanttohelp) and #PorteOuverte (#Opendoor) were used by Brussels residents who wanted to offer shelter and assistance for people who might need help.[153][154][155]Facebook activated its Safety Check feature following the attacks.[156]

Following the bombings, several structures around the world were illuminated in the colours of the Belgian flag, including the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, the Eiffel Tower in Paris, the National Gallery in London's Trafalgar Square, the Royal Palace in Amsterdam, the Trevi Fountain in Rome,[157] and One World Trade Center in New York City,[158] while the spire of the Empire State Building went dark.[158] The Toronto Sign was lit up in the colours of the Belgian flag on the night of the attacks.[159]

Governments, media outlets, and social media users received criticism in some media and academic analysis for their disproportionate emphasis placed on the attacks in Brussels over similar attacks in other countries, particularly in Turkey, which occurred days before. Similarly, reactions to the November 2015 Paris attacks were viewed as disproportionate in comparison to those of earlier bombings in Beirut.[160][161][162][163] According to Akin Unver, a professor of international affairs at Istanbul's Kadir Has University, being "selective" about terrorism is counterproductive to the global counterterrorism efforts.[164]

2014 murderEdit

It is thought that the El-Bakraoui brothers were responsible for the unsolved murder in 2014 of an elderly man who was shot as he walked home from a café in the Jette area of Brussels. Abrini and Krayem told investigators that the brothers had said that they carried out the murder to see what it was like to kill someone. The victim's widow as told in 2020 that it was almost certain that the El-Bakraoui brothers had killed her husband, although officially the case was closed.[165]

Parliamentary inquiryEdit

On 14 April 2016, the Belgian Federal Parliament established a commission of inquiry into the attacks and the failure of the security forces to prevent them. The commission was also given the task of examining the emergency response to the attacks and assistance to victims, the development of radicalism in Belgium, and the structure of the country's security services.[166]: 11  Between August 2016 and October 2017, the commission published four interim reports: "Emergency response"; "Assistance to the victims"; "Security architecture"; "Radicalism".[166]: 12  The commission identified a number of problems with security forces: government and security forces running in parallel rather than together; faulty communications both within the country and with foreign counterparts of Belgian services; a failure to pay sufficient attention to proactive action and prevention of terrorism and radicalism; the underfunding of various security units; a lack of cooperation between units; a need for improved cooperation with European and international agencies; a proliferation of rules and procedures that threatened to exacerbate a lack of coherence in policy.[166]: 38-9  The commission identified a need for security forces to strengthen information management and establish an information-sharing culture within and between the security services. Whilst some services had too little information others suffered from information overload.[166]: 43  The commission's report also addressed a number of criticisms levelled at Belgium by the French parliamentary investigation into the November 2015 Paris attacks.[166]: 59 


In December 2022, ten men went on trial in Brussels for their involvement in the bombings. Oussama Atar, thought to have been killed in Syria, was tried in his absence. The nine accused who appeared in court were Mohamed Abrini, Osama Krayem, Salah Abdeslam, Sofien Ayari, Bilal El Makhoukhi, Hervé Bayingana Muhirwa, Ali El Haddad Asufi, Smail Farisi et Ibrahim Farisi. All except Ibrahim Farisi were charged with belonging to a terrorist group and terrorist-related murder and attempted murder. Ibrahim Farisi was charged only with belonging to a terrorist group. Five of the accused (Abrini, Krayem, Abdeslam, Ayari and El Haddad Asufi) had already been convicted in the Paris attacks trial. The Farisi brothers were on bail, while the others were all detained. The trial, which is expected to last six to eight months, is taking place with a jury before presiding judge Laurence Massart in the Justitia building (the former headquarters of NATO) in Evere, Brussels.[167]

The trail was scheduled to start in September 2022 but was delayed as the defence lawyers objected to the design of the box, which then had to be rebuilt.[168] In December and January there were interruptions to the trial as the defendants objected to being strip-searched before their transfer from prison to the courtroom.[169]


Wall of messages at Maelbeek metro

In the aftermath of the attacks, the population of Brussels reacted by creating spontaneous memorials as a societal reaction to what was perceived as a collective tragedy. In the hours following the attack, people started gathering at the Place de la Bourse - Beursplein. Mourners wrote chalk messages on the pavement and buildings surrounding the square. Numerous messages and mementos, usually every-day objects such as mugs or hats, were left at the Brussels Stock Exchange memorial. According to Ana Milosevic, a researcher at KU Leuven, societal tensions and the pressure for the answers about the causes and consequences of the attacks, were salient in the first days and weeks after the event. During the two months of the existence, the Brussels Stock Exchange memorial was used as a site of contestation and negotiation of the meanings associated with the terrorist attacks.[170]

The Archives of City of Brussels were tasked by the mayor Yvan Mayeur and the city council to collect and document the societal reactions to the attacks. Over two months, the team of the archives documented the process of memorialization, also collecting some of the memorabilia left by the mourners.[171]

In November 2016 a sculpture in memory of the victims of the bombings was inaugurated in the main square of Molenbeek. The sculpture, called the Flame of Hope, was created by Molenbeek artist Moustapha Zoufri.[172]

Following a public competition,[173] a monument to the victims was unveiled on the first anniversary of the attacks on the pedestrianized section of Rue de la Loi, between Schuman and the parc du Cinquantenaire. The monument, by Jean-Henri Compere, is called "Wounded But Still Standing in Front of the Inconceivable" and is constructed from two 20-metre (66 foot) long horizontal surfaces rising skywards.[174]

The Brussels-Capital Region also memorialized the attacks with a land-art work by Bas Smets, who planted 32 birches (one for each victim) in the Sonian Forest (Drève de l'Infante - Infantedreef) called "Memorial 22/03". Smets describes the memorial as "a place of silence and meditation." The birches are connected by a circular structure and separated from the rest of the forest by a small round canal.[175][176][177]

A smaller memorial (a black plaque and a tree) was also raised by the municipality of Etterbeek in the Jardin Felix Hap.

In the Maelbeek metro station, a commemorative mural called "The Olive Tree" was created by Benoît van Innis, who previously designed the metro station, and a list of the sixteen victims was unveiled at the third commemorative anniversary next to the mural.[178]

Further readingEdit

Academic booksEdit

  • Cyrille Fijnaut (2020) De samenhang tussen georganiseerde misdaad en terrorisme en de aanslagen in Parijs en Brussel in 2015-2016. Cambridge and Antwerp: Intersentia ISBN 9789400012776

Books by journalistsEdit

  • Joanie De Rijke and Tine Gregoor (2021) Bommen in Brussel. Vijf jaar na de aanslagen, 22 maart 2016. Antwerp: Uitgeverij Vrijdag ISBN 946001982X

Books by victimsEdit

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Plus one survivor who chose to die by euthanasia in 2022 due to PTSD from the attack.
  2. ^ Italian-Belgian woman
  3. ^ Moroccan-Belgian woman


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