A suitcase bomb packed with nails and gas bottles could have caused heavy casualties, Belgium’s prime minister said on Wednesday, a day after a soldier shot dead a Moroccan national attempting an attack on Brussels’ Central Station.
“We have avoided an attack that could have been a great deal worse,” Charles Michel told reporters on Wednesday following Tuesday evening’s incident, in which no one else was hurt. No further threat was imminent and the alert level was unchanged.
A security source named the dead man, identified officially only by the initials O.Z., as Oussama Zariouh. A counter-terrorism prosecutor said he was a 36-year-old Moroccan citizen who lived in the Brussels borough of Molenbeek and had not been suspected of militant links. He set off his bomb on a crowded station concourse below ground at 8:44pm (1844 GMT).
Walking up to some passengers, “he grabbed his suitcase, while shouting and causing a partial explosion. Fortunately, nobody was hurt,” prosecutor Eric Van Der Sypt said.
The suitcase, later found to contain nails and gas bottles, caught fire and then exploded a second time more violently as the man ran downstairs to the platforms.
He then ran back up to the concourse where commuters had been milling around and rushed toward a soldier shouting “Allahu akbar” – God is greatest, in Arabic. The soldier, part of a routine patrol, shot him several times. Bomb disposal experts checked the body and found he was not carrying more explosives.
Police raided the man’s home overnight, Van Der Sypt said. Broadcaster VTM said they had found bomb-making materials.
Molenbeek, a poor borough with a big Moroccan Muslim population, gained notoriety after an Islamic State cell based there mounted suicide attacks on Paris in November 2015 that killed 130 people. Associates of that group attacked Brussels itself four months later, killing 32 people.
Molenbeek mayor Francoise Schepmans told reporters Zariouh, was on police files over a drugs case last year and was divorced. Bruno Struys, a Belgian author who writes on Islamist fighters, said that Zariouh had lived in Belgium since 2002, was married from 2004-2007 and moved to Molenbeek in 2013.
His Facebook page, which had not been updated in a year, showed a man in his 30s posing regularly for selfies, alone at the wheel of the same car. It said he was self-employed, single, came from Nador on the Mediterranean coast and graduated from the nearby university at Oujda in 2002.
Posts on the page showed an interest in Islamic charity but no obvious support for militant organisations. Along with Arab musicians, he posted a liking for Canadian pop diva Celine Dion.
Paul Cruickshank, a journalist specialising in security issues for CNN, tweeted that a Belgian counter-terrorism official told the broadcaster that investigators had established the dead man had been a “sympathiser” of Islamic State.
Prime Minister Michel insisted the country, which has been the most fertile European recruiting ground for Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, would not bow to threats that have seen combat troops become a permanent fixture at public spaces in Brussels.
“We will not let ourselves be intimidated,” Michel said. “We will go on living our lives as normal.”
There was no immediate claim of responsibility and no word on how investigations are progressing into whether the man had acted alone or had help, and into any links to radical groups.
The Belgian capital, home to the headquarters of NATO and the European Union, took a heavy hit to its tourist industry last year. Visitors and residents out enjoying a hot summer’s evening on the ornate Renaissance town square, the Grand Place, close to Central Station were cleared quickly away by police.
Smoke billowed through the 1930s station’s marble halls, sending people fleeing, well aware of last year’s attacks at Brussels airport and on the metro, as well as of a string of Islamic State-inspired assaults, most recently in Britain.
“Such isolated acts will continue in Brussels, in Paris and elsewhere. It’s inevitable,” Brussels security consultant Claude Moniquet, a former French agent, told broadcaster RTL.
With Islamic State under pressure in Syria, he said, attacks in Europe may increase, though many would be by “amateurs”.
Witness Nicolas Van Herrewegen, a rail worker, told Reuters: “He was talking about the jihadists and all that and then at some point he shouted: ‘Allahu akbar’ and blew up the little suitcase he had next to him. People just took off.”
Remy Bonnaffe, a 23-year-old lawyer who was waiting for a train home, told Reuters: “I think we had some luck tonight.”