Belgium has avoided a serious attack, its interior minister said on Wednesday, after a suspected suicide bomber planning to explode a large bomb caused only a minor explosion in Brussels’ central station late on Tuesday.
Several media outlets reported unnamed sources as saying the device that failed to fully explode was filled with nails and was similar to the bombs used in the attacks at Brussels airport and on the city’s metro that killed 32 people in March 2016.
“Yesterday, someone with explosives entered central station. He intended to explode a large bomb. In the end, there was a small explosion to which soldiers reacted immediately. Something much worse has been avoided,” Jan Jambon told broadcaster VTM.
The suspected attacker, who was shot dead by soldiers patrolling the station, was reportedly a 37-year-old man from Molenbeek. The inner city borough has a large immigrant population and was home to some of those involved in Islamic State attacks on Paris and Brussels in 2015 and 2016.
Jambon said police were searching homes in Molenbeek as part of their investigation. He gave no further details on the searches or on why the bomb had not fully exploded.
Federal prosecutors were due to hold a news conference at 11 a.m. (0900 GMT). They said on Tuesday that they considered the incident a terrorist attack, although they declined to comment on witness accounts saying the man shouted Islamist slogans before detonating the bomb.
Although no one was hurt, smoke billowing through Central Station sent commuters racing for cover.
Police halted rail traffic, evacuated the site and cleared streets crowded with tourists and residents enjoying a hot summer’s evening in the city center between the station and nearby Grand Place, Brussels’ landmark Renaissance town square.
“We will not let ourselves be intimidated, we will go on living our lives as normal,” Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel told a news conference.
The Belgian capital, home to the headquarters of NATO and the European Union, has been on high alert since Brussels-based Islamic State members killed 130 people in Paris in November 2015 and then organized the attack in Brussels months later.
Since then, attacks in France, but also in Germany, Sweden and, most recently, in Britain, have been carried out in the name of the Syria-based Islamist militant group by other young men, many of them locals.
Security experts said Tuesday’s incident could have been similar to “lone-wolf” assaults carried out by radicalized individuals with limited access to weapons and training.
“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 – where Belgium has been the most fertile European recruiting ground for foreign Islamist fighters – he said attacks in Europe could increase, although many would be by “amateurs” doing little harm.
He compared Tuesday’s incident to that on Paris’ Champs-Elysees avenue a day earlier, when a man was killed when he rammed his car, filled with explosives and weapons, into a French police convoy. No one else was injured.
Rail worker Nicolas Van Herrewegen said that he was heading downstairs toward the underground platforms that serve long-distance and suburban lines running under Brussels city center when the incident occurred.
“There was a man shouting, and shouting and shouting,” he said. “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.”
He described the man as quite dark and with short hair and said he was wearing a white shirt and black jeans.
Remy Bonnaffe, a 23-year-old lawyer who was waiting on the concourse for a train home to Ghent, said he was startled by an explosion as he listened to music on his headphones.
He took a photograph, which he later posted on Twitter, of flames shooting up from what he thought was a briefcase. There was a second blast farther away, which he could not see, followed by what sounded like gunfire, which made him run away.
“I think we had some luck tonight,” he said. “I’m happy that no one was injured and that this was basically a failed attempt.” People just feet from the explosion appeared unhurt and he said he saw no obvious damage to nearby walls.
As Michel consulted his security advisers, the national alert was maintained at its second highest level. Michel also convened a National Security Council meeting on Wednesday morning.