Last Tuesday, 22 March, Brussels fell victim to a terrorist attack by the Islamic State. The bombers targeted the airport at around 7 am local time and later that morning the Maelbeek metro station. With 31 people killed and hundreds wounded, the attacks were tragic and frightening. The Saint spoke to James Bundy, a St Andrews student who was in Brussels that day.
Mr Bundy had travelled to Brussels as a member of the St Andrews Conservative Party, which was visiting the EU Parliament. The Saint interviewed him on the day of crisis, but now, back on home soil, he spoke to us again, allowing us to gain a fuller understanding of his experience of the attacks.
Brussels is usually a vibrant and buzzing city. After the attacks, it was left in quite a different state with army officers guarding hotels and a plethora of memorials for the victims that had sprung up across the city. As someone who was there before and after the attack, we asked how the mood of the city changed.
Mr Bundy said, “We got into Brussels city centre quite late on Monday evening. We went to dinner and went to a few pubs. Even though it was not busy, there was still a buzz to the city. This changed after the attacks. The city was quiet with the only noise heard being the sound of sirens and police helicopters.”
As reports of the number of victims the attack had claimed came to light, the city fell into mourning. However, as Mr Bundy went on to say, Brussels and its citizens were also trying to regain a sense of normality. Shops re-opened, and the streets gradually became busier. Many news outlets commented both on the city’s resilience in the face of tragedy and the increased resignation to attacks like this.
“As time went on, the city slowly started to get back to normal, but the police and army presence was visible,” he said. “People were clearly in shock and scared, but they were also determined to get back to their normal lives as soon as possible.”
Although the Conservative team was told to remain in their hotel, which was protected by armed guards, for the remainder of the day, this change in atmosphere was still apparent. Seeing such an immense impact on a city and its people must have been shocking. Speaking to Mr Bundy, we asked if witnessing this event so close-up had affected his political views in any way.
He responded, “I believe in liberty, but I also believe that liberty has to be defended. A strong army, strong intelligence and a strong police are key essentials to defending liberty. I believed that before Tuesday, but the events on Tuesday have reinforced these beliefs.”
This view is markedly measured in comparison to some of the opinions expressed on Yik Yak in St Andrews in the aftermath of the attacks. There were vicious anti-Islamic outburst, with some even calling for a book burning of the Qu’ran. As one Yakker pointed out, our usually tolerant herd was becoming a mouthpiece for uneducated generalisations, abuse and threats. As terrorism attacks continue to strike cities around the world, many worry that the fear will bolster intolerant and nationalist politicians. For example, in the aftermath of the Paris attacks last November, American presidential candidate Donald Trump surged in the polls. Many pundits attribute this to his hardline stance on national security, which is appealing to people who are desperately afraid that such attacks will continue.
However, one Yak stood out among the rest: “We’re not scared, we’re angry.” With this in mind, we asked Mr Bundy about how he felt about the response on social media.
He said: “Some of the messages I have read have been appalling. By some people blaming Muslims, it is playing into the hands of ISIS and that is the last thing we need to do. The views of the people in Brussels were very similar to the reaction in Paris. The vast majority stood up for what they and the West believe in.”
By affirming values such as tolerance and equality, Belgians defied their attackers, who acted on hatred and violence. Mr Bundy was admirably composed. But he also pointed out that such an attack could have been prevented. This fact is as upsetting to him as it is to everyone else.
“After contacting my family, I started to become more scared as all we could hear outside was the sirens,” he said. “Luckily I had my friends with me, and I certainly think that their being there helped [to] calm me down. After ISIS declared that they were responsible for the attacks, I started to feel more angry than scared because their declaring their responsibility usually signals the end of the attacks.”
With attacks like the ones in Brussels become more and more frequent, governments are clearly trying to hone their preventative strategies. Drills are staged in London almost every month now, with mock-terrorist attacks carried out in order to test the response of authorities.
The Brussels’ terrorist response unit has received criticism in the aftermath of the attacks for not being fully prepared and for misinforming families of victims. It was recently reported that one of the attackers, Brahim el-Bakraoui, was known to the authorities as an extremist. Turkey had warned that he should not be allowed further into Europe when he arrived at border patrol.
Mr Bundy continued to say, “My anger continued to grow, but was directed towards Belgian authorities when more information came out about the lack of communication between police forces and intelligence services. If they had improved [their tactics], they could’ve saved innocent lives.”
These attacks will undoubtedly have a lasting impact on Brussels. It will also arguably influence the upcoming EU referendum, scheduled for 23 June. According to the BBC, the British public are fairly evenly split about the prospect of leaving the EU. About half of Conservative MPs are in favour of leaving, in part because they object to the EU principle of “free movement,” which means that individuals do not need a visa to move between membership countries.
The Conservative and Unionist Association were in Brussels to see the EU Parliament as a trip organised by the MP Ian Duncan. With the Brexit campaign coming to a head this June, there was discussion of how a terrorist attack at the heart of the European Union would affect the campaign. Mr Bundy is the spokesperson for ‘Vote Leave’ in St Andrews. When asked how he thought the attack would influence the campaign, he said: “It’s shifted the focus of both campaigns to security. I disagree with members of both sides trying to politicize the attacks, but it has raised concerns about the security of Britain within the EU.”
There were outpourings on Twitter from government officials across the world. David Cameron tweeted: “I am shocked and concerned by the events in Brussels.” After the attacks there has been pressure on our government, as well as others, to react. The Prime Minister chaired a meeting with COBRA, the crisis committee, on the day of the attacks to discuss Britain’s response. However, it is unclear what the outcome of this meeting was.
Last week, Cameron travelled to Lanzarote with his wife. There was widespread criticism of his holiday in the press considering how soon after the attacks it took place. Many argued that Mr Cameron was not doing enough to address the issue. However, Mr Bundy did not find this behaviour problematic. Instead, he was clear about what he hopes Mr Cameron will focus on in the wake of the attacks.
“I would like to see David Cameron invested in intelligence services,” he says. “These services have done a fantastic job stopping attacks in the UK, but the ways ISIS is organising attacks are becoming more sophisticated and harder to detect. The British government should be ensuring that our intelligence has the resources available to stop people before they commit the attacks.”
He continued: “I also believe there has to be greater communication between the police and intelligence. This seemed to be a real problem in the Brussels attacks, so we have to ensure that information can be passed on quickly between different agencies.”
Mr Bundy also said that he felt lucky and glad to be back home after a tumultuous visit to Brussels. The day after the attack, his group was still confined to their hotel room and unable to leave the country as all flights were cancelled. Nonetheless, they were able to enjoy the remainder of their stay despite what had happened and returned to the Bubble safely.
With every attack, more and more people – and more and more St Andrews students – experience terrorism first-hand. Mr Bundy’s experience is both a jarring reminder that these attacks can affect anyone and an example of how to move forward anyway.