President Barack Obama on Tuesday vowed to “go after” the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, in the first apparent official confirmation that the U.S. believes the terrorist group was indeed behind the Brussels attacks that left at least 34 dead.
“The notion that any political agenda would justify the killing of innocent people like this is something that’s beyond the pale. We are gonna continue with the over 60 nations that are pounding ISIL, and we’re going to go after them,” Obama said, speaking to ESPN at the top of the third inning in a historic baseball game in Cuba. “In the meantime, obviously our thoughts and prayers are with those who’ve been lost and hoping for a speedy recovery or those who’ve been injured.”
Obama also hit back at critics, including Republican presidential candidates, who called on him to cut short his historic trip to the island nation and then Argentina.
“It’s always a challenge when you have a terrorist attack anywhere in the world, particularly in this age of 24/7 news coverage,” Obama said. “You want to be respectful and understand the gravity of the situation, but the whole premise of terrorism is to try to disrupt people’s ordinary lives.”
The Belgian capital was rocked early Tuesday by twin explosive attacks at an airport terminal and subway station that produced horrific images and reignited terror concerns worldwide.
The Islamic State on Tuesday afternoon took credit for the devastating bombings and warned of “dark days ahead” for the West. The terrorist group thanked Allah for the attack’s success at casting “fear and terror in the hearts of the crusaders, right in their own land.”
The statement, released in Arabic and French, describes how “soldiers of the Caliphate” used suicide belts and bombs to attack locations “chosen with precision” around Brussels, including the airport and a metro station, in order to kill a “large number of crusaders.”
“We promise the nations of crusaders that are allied against the Islamic State that dark days lie ahead, in response to their aggression against our State,” the statement warns. “And what awaits you will be harder and more bitter, with Allah’s permission.”
Obama also spoke about the attacks earlier on Tuesday, as he addressed the Cuban people about the virtues of embracing human rights and democracy.
“This is yet another reminder that the world must unite. We must be together, regardless of nationality or race or faith, in fighting against the scourge of terrorism,” Obama said, speaking at the Gran Teatro in Havana. “We can and we will defeat those who threaten the safety and security of people all around the world.”
State Department spokesman John Kirby said late Tuesday that the terror attacks signaled that the Islamic State and other terrorist organizations are “under pressure.” “This is a group that isn’t operating at all the way it used to and we think that one of the reasons why we are starting to see more of these kinds of attacks—even in Baghdad—is because this group is under some pressure,” Kirby told MSNBC.
Eight Americans were reportedly wounded in the attacks, including a U.S. serviceman and several members of his family. State Department spokesman John Kirby said on Tuesday afternoon that officials were not yet aware of any U.S. fatalities. Obama on Tuesday afternoon ordered that American flags be flown at half-staff at the White House and at all public buildings and grounds.
Brussels was locked down after the explosions, which the Belgian government immediately said were acts of terrorism. Belgian authorities also elevated the threat level to four, its highest tier, which serves as a warning that further attacks could occur.
Even as officials across two continents scrambled to understand the nature of the attacks, Donald Trump on Tuesday morning quickly pounced on the news to renew his calls for stronger border security, saying his commitment on the issue has propelled him to the top of the Republican field.
“This is what I’ve been saying for a long time, and I guess it’s at least a small part of the reason why I’m the No. 1 front-runner,” Trump told “Fox & Friends” in a phone interview. “I mean, people are very concerned about this, and they’re very concerned about the security of this country.”
In Washington, D.C., House Speaker Paul Ryan said he had “received updates” about the attacks, and he has “absolutely no reason to believe there is a threat” to the U.S. Capitol complex.
Metro transit police said they had found no credible threats to the public transportation system, but authorities increased security patrols in response to the explosions abroad. Amtrak said extra officers have been deployed to enhance security. And Delta diverted flights from Brussels after the explosions.
In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced stepped-up security at airports, bridges, tunnels and mass transit systems.
The latest attacks revive fears that were stoked late last year when a group of terrorists in Paris killed 130 and left hundreds more wounded — simultaneous attacks also claimed by the Islamic State. A husband-and-wife team in San Bernardino, California, whose ties to the Islamic State were more uncertain, killed 14 people and seriously injured 22 in a shooting spree in December — the deadliest terrorist attack on U.S. soil since 9/11.
The fears of terrorism have reverberated on the campaign trail, with Trump in particular trying to position himself as the best contender to forcefully take on the terrorist threat.
On Tuesday, Trump said that he has been warning about the importance of border security for some time and pointed to Brussels as an example of what could happen with weak borders. “I’ve been talking about this for a long time, and look at Brussels,” he told Fox News. “Brussels was a beautiful city, a beautiful place with zero crime, and now it’s a disaster city. It’s a total disaster.”
“We have to be very careful in the United States,” he warned. “We have to be very, very vigilant as to who we allow into this country.”
John Kasich quickly issued a statement Tuesday morning, saying, “The wave of terror that has been unleashed in Europe and elsewhere around the world are attacks against our very way of life and against the democratic values upon which our political systems have been built.”
Ted Cruz seized on the incident Tuesday morning to slam Obama for his refusal to acknowledge radical Islamic terrorism. “And the truth is, we can never hope to defeat this evil so long as we refuse to even name it.”
Hours later, Cruz ramped up his rhetoric, calling for a halt on refugees coming from nations with ties to terrorist groups and new powers for “law enforcement to patrol and secure Muslim neighborhoods before they become radicalized.”
Cruz communications director Alice Stewart elaborated in an email to POLITICO. “We know what is happening with these isolated Muslim neighborhoods in Europe. If we want to prevent it from happening here, it is going to require an empowered, visible law enforcement presence that will both identify problem spots and partner with non-radical Americans who want to protect their homes,” she said.
Hillary Clinton quickly called for an intensification of efforts to keep America safe, while also rebuking Trump and his “unrealistic” plan to close the borders.
“It’s unrealistic to say we’re going to completely shut down our borders to everyone. That would stop commerce, for example, and that’s not in anybody’s interest,” Clinton said.
In the wake of the attacks, Obama faced some pressure to cut short his trip to Cuba and then Argentina, which has been a legacy-making achievement for him.
“What I hope he will say is he’s leaving Cuba and heading back to the White House,” Kasich said. “He’s gonna begin to organize meetings with the leaders around the world and at the same time get himself in the position of where we can send teams of people immediately to Europe to begin to dig in terms of what we need to do to address the vulnerabilities we have.”
Cruz also called on Obama to either return to the United States or head to Brussels to address the security threat.
Despite the dysfunction throughout Congress, many Republican and Democratic lawmakers stood with Obama on the significance of defeating the Islamic State and standing beside American allies.
“The thoughts and the prayers of the American people are with the people of Belgium, and we stand in solidarity with them in condemning these outrageous attacks against innocent people,” Obama said. “We will do whatever is necessary to support our friend and ally, Belgium, in bringing to justice those who are responsible.”
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