World
Belgium’s Deadly Circles of Terror
Coordinated bombings in Brussels may have been in the works for some time, aided by an underworld where crime and extremism blur together
 
This story was co-produced with Frontline.
 
Over the past several months, Belgian counterterror officials told me they were working nonstop to prevent an attack and that the danger had never been so high. Today, their worst fears came true when coordinated bombings struck the airport and a subway stop in Brussels.
As part of my work on a forthcoming ProPublica/Frontline documentary about the terrorism threat in Europe, I traveled recently to Belgium to investigate the nation’s central role as a staging ground for the Paris attacks four months ago. 
 
“It is just a matter of time before terrorists will succeed in attacking Belgium,” federal prosecutor Eric Van der Sypt told me weeks ago in Brussels.
 
The concerns of Van der Sypt and other officials were driven by events as well as surveillance of suspects in Belgium and Syria. In December, Belgian police prevented two alleged plots, one by the remnants of the Belgian-led group that hit Paris in November and another by a radicalized motorcycle gang, the Kamikaze Riders. In the ensuing months police pursued fugitives linked to the Paris attacks and intercepted menacing phone chatter and WhatsApp chats filled with photos of jihadis posing with guns, camels and corpses in Islamic State’s dominions in Syria.
 
In one intercepted phone call to Brussels, a Belgian militant in Syria discussed his friend Bilal Hadfi, a Belgian suicide bomber who died in Paris in November, according to counterterror officials. The militant’s mother warned him not to do bad things like his friend Bilal or she would pray for him to go to hell. The militant asked what the friends were saying about Bilal back in the “sector,” the tough Molenbeek suburb of Brussels where many of the Paris attackers grew up.
 
“Are they talking about him? Are they praising him? Are they saying he was a lion?” the militant said. “For them, the jihad is all about recognition on the street, in the neighborhood, the glory,” a counterterror official told me.
 
The Islamic State claimed responsibility for the Brussels attacks. Investigators are trying to determine whether the perpetrators were part of the group of Belgians who provided support for the Paris plot. At least two suspected Paris plotters had remained on the run after the arrests Friday of Abdeslam and another suspect. 
 
“We think there was a bomb maker who survived, someone who had put together the vests in Belgium, and we don’t think it was one of those who died in Paris,” a senior French counterterror official told me before the Brussels attacks. “Usually they don’t want to lose someone with those kinds of skills in an attack.”
 
It is also possible a separate cell carried out the attack in Brussels. A Belgian counterterror official cited intelligence reports that 180 European operatives were trained by the Islamic State and deployed back to their home countries during the past year. Some of those operatives, including at least three of the Paris attackers, used fraudulent passports to pose as Syrians and concealed themselves in the chaotic flow of refugees and migrants across the European Union’s borders.
 
Officials describe the threat in Belgium as concentric circles: Hundreds of hard-core terrorists intent on striking Europe after express training by the Islamic State in what a captured French suspect described to interrogators last year as a “factory of terrorists” in Syria. Extremists willing to fight and die without leaving home. Gangsters who drink and gamble, yet support the Islamist cause with guns, cash, cars and documents. And loose networks of petty criminals and associates willing to shelter notorious fugitives like Salah Abdeslam, the suspected Paris attacker arrested last week in his native Molenbeek.
 
The size, volatility and street gang-like mentality of that underworld help explain how Abdeslam dodged authorities for four months – and how bombers eluded security forces on high alert and struck the Brussels airport and a subway stop near the European Union headquarters today. The estimated casualty count so far: more than 30 dead and 230 wounded. The convergence of crime and extremism in has reached dangerous levels in Belgium but reflects a larger European security challenge. 
 
“You have so many people who are adrift, who are involved in common crime and decide terrorism is a shortcut to paradise,” said Dolores Delgado, a chief counterterror prosecutor in Spain. “It gives them a chance to get revenge on society. It is a virtual army of people who follow a demented ideology whether they go to Syria or remain here. A large number of people who are ready to help an attack.” 
 
France and Belgium are the top targets because they have sent so many fighters to Syria, where they train with thousands of French-speaking jihadis from Tunisia and Morocco. The Belgian counterterror official said: “When the recruits arrive in Syria, they are asked, ‘Do you want to fight here or go back home to Europe to be a martyr?’ If they want to go back to Europe, they are given express training, a week of arms and explosives, then sent back. It’s as quick as possible.”
 
The coordinated attacks on the airport and the subway appear to have been in the making for some time, officials said Tuesday. The timing, however, may have been driven by fears that the arrests last week would expose other militants operating underground in Belgium, especially if Abdeslam and the other suspect cooperated with investigators.
 
“I don’t think the attack was organized quickly as revenge for (Abdeslam’s) arrest,” said Delgado, the Spanish prosecutor. “The alert has been at a high level ever since the Paris attacks. It could be that they sped up a plot because they thought Abdeslam might collaborate. But their overall goal is to spread terror and chaos.”
 
The fugitive Paris suspects and Tuesday’s bombers benefited from the support of an underworld where crime and extremism increasingly blur together, making the threat even harder to identify. The phenomenon exists also in France, Denmark and other nations with sizeable populations of working-class, alienated children and grandchildren of Muslim immigrants. But it has reached dangerous extremes in Belgium. An increasing number of recruits and supporters of the Islamic State are violent criminals who radicalize rapidly, yet don’t necessarily adhere to a fundamentalist lifestyle. Continue Reading… 
 

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Budget hotels boosting online booking: Google report
New Delhi : Branded budget hotel chains in domestic hotel industry are driving the growth of hotel bookings online, revealed a report by Google India compiled by looking at the search trends for both domestic and international travel sector for the upcoming holiday season.
 
The report further revealed that Internet users in the country are lapping up the budget hotels online which is evident in the growth of Google search queries. Branded budget hotel queries in India are growing at 179 percent Year over Year ( YoY) in comparison to just 36 percent YOY growth in generic budget hotel queries. The overall queries for ‘Accommodations’ as a whole are growing at 37 percent YOY.
 
“Newer players in the segment have energised the travel vertical by unlocking a brand new inventory online. They have been quick to capitalise on the online demand with aggressive advertising spends in building their brands, which is leading to overall category growth for the Industry,” said Director Sales of Google India Vikas Agnihotri.
 
“We expect this segment to continue to see massive growth with leisure travel expected to pick up in the coming summer holiday season. As part of our own efforts to boost the sector, we’re sponsoring Great Indian Travel Festival which is currently live - to provide users a central destination for all the great holiday deals that are available online for the upcoming holiday season,” added Agnihotri.
 
In terms of top destinations searched for accommodation during March to June period of 2015, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Goa, Rajasthan, Himachal Pradesh, Kerala and Delhi-NCR are the most searched destinations.
 
The survey also indicated that leisure destinations will be the next growth driver for branded budget hotel category as today out of the top 50 domestic destination searched, only 30% of destinations represent leisure travel.
 
As per industry estimates, the inventory in the budget hotel space is expected to grow further with both new and existing players expected to bring up to 10,000 new rooms online this year.
 
In terms of outbound data (International) compiled basis Google search queries Between January to September 2015, 25% of search queries are for International air tickets growing at 43% YOY while 22% of search queries are for International holidays growing at 30% YOY. 
 
UAE, USA and Thailand take the top positions for most searched international destinations with a healthy growth rate of over 35% YOY.
 
Search queries also reveal that the Indian travelers have taken a liking to niche travel destinations with Seychelles topping the chart followed by Hungary, Czech Republic, Russia, Greece and Norway.
 
Thailand was the most searched holiday destination between March to June 2015 followed by USA, UAE, Singapore and Maldives.
 
Disclaimer: Information, facts or opinions expressed in this news article are presented as sourced from IANS and do not reflect views of Moneylife and hence Moneylife is not responsible or liable for the same. As a source and news provider, IANS is responsible for accuracy, completeness, suitability and validity of any information in this article.

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Jet Airways cancels operations to Brussels
New Delhi : Jet Airways on Tuesday cancelled all its flights to and from Brussels until Wednesday after two of its staff members were injured in the bomb blasts that rocked the city's Zaventem airport on Tuesday morning.
 
Two of the airline's flights from India had landed before and around the time of the attack, but all passengers and crew were safe.
 
"Jet Airways has cancelled flights operating to/from and via Brussels until tomorrow Wednesday 23 March. The airline has also offered a waiver on cancellation, rebooking and rerouting of tickets for travel to/from/via Brussels until March 26," an airline spokesperson said.
 
According to the airline, following the deadly explosions, the Brussels airport has been closed until 6.00 a.m. local time on March 23.
 
The airline informed that two of its staff members sustained injuries in the explosion at Brussels airport.
 
"Both of them are receiving medical care at hospitals," the spokesperson said.
 
The airline elaborated, that as per the latest information received from Brussels, its guests have been accommodated at three locations by Jet Airways staff in co-ordination with the local authorities. 
 
"Arrangements for their food and comfort have been made till the situation normalises," the spokesperson added.
 
"We are working very closely with the Indian Embassy and are in touch with the Indian Ambassador to plan the next steps for evacuation of our guests from Brussels once the airport becomes operational."
 
Two Jet Airways flights, one from New Delhi and the other from Mumbai, had landed at Brussels around the time of the blast. 
 
According to the data from aviation website Flightradar24, Jet Airways flight 9W 230 from New Delhi reached Brussels at 8.08 a.m. local time, just minutes after the bomb blast at the departure terminal at 8 a.m.
 
Flight 9W 228 from Mumbai had landed at Brussels at 7.11 a.m. local time. 
 
Several people were said to have been injured at the airport, with media putting the number of dead at 13, while blasts were also reported from elsewhere in the city including a subway station.
 
Currently, Jet Airways operates daily non-stop flights to its European gateway at Brussels airport from its domestic hubs in Mumbai and New Delhi. 
 
The attacks coincidentally came a day after the private Indian airline announced it will shift its European base out of Brussels to Amsterdam. 
 
On Monday, the airline had announced that it will shift its European hub from Brussels to Amsterdam, and plans to launch daily non-stop flights from New Delhi and Mumbai to Amsterdam, starting from March 27.
 
Disclaimer: Information, facts or opinions expressed in this news article are presented as sourced from IANS and do not reflect views of Moneylife and hence Moneylife is not responsible or liable for the same. As a source and news provider, IANS is responsible for accuracy, completeness, suitability and validity of any information in this article.

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