Police operations carried out in Mons and Liege last week resulted in two brothers being arrested on suspicion of carrying an attack on the country.
One of the men arrested, named only as Nouredine H, 33, has ben charged over an alleged plot to attack Belgium. He is accused of attempting to commit a “terrorist murder” and participation in the activities of a terrorist organization and was arrested along with his brother Hamza H. Hamza H. has since been released from police custody without charge. The raids were carried out by federal police in the cities of Mons and Liege, with officials disclosing that no weapons or explosives were found during the operations. In a statement, the federal prosecution office disclosed that “based on provisional results from the investigation, it appears that there were plans to carry out an attack somewhere in Belgium.” The French version of the statement referred to “planning attacks” in the plural.
Belgium is currently on security alert level three, of four, effectively meaning that the threat is considered serious, possible and probable. In March, thirty-two people were killed after attacks were carried out on Brussels Airport and a metro station in the city. Last month, Belgian police disclosed that they had received warning that a group of so-called Islamic State (IS) fighters had recently left Syria and were heading to Europe to plan attacks in Belgium and neighbouring France.
On 16 June, a Belgian court cleared the extradition to France of two suspects who are currently under investigation in connection with Islamist militant attacks that occurred in Paris last November.
A statement released by the Belgian government disclosed that a Brussels appeals court “declared enforceable” European arrest warrants issued by France for Moahmed Amri and Ali Oulkadi. The prime surviving suspect of the 13 November Paris attacks, which killed 130 people, is Salah Abdeslam, a French citizen who was born and raised in Belgium. He was captured in Brussels on 18 March, after a four-month manhunt, and was handed over to French authorities on 27 April. In May, France sought the extradition of Amri. According to investigators, Amri drove to Paris shortly after the attacks to fetch Abdeslam and bring him to Belgium. Oulkadi, a Frenchman who lived in Brussels, has ben accused of driving Abdeslam on 14 November.
The Paris bomb and shooting attacks were claimed by the so-called Islamic State (IS) group, as were the 22 March bombings at Brussels airport and a metro station, which killed 32 people.
Reports have emerged that Belgian police have received an anti-terror alert warning that a group of Islamic State (IS) fighters recently left Syria, en route foe Europe planning to carry out attacks in Belgium and neighbouring France.
The Belgian crisis centre, which is in charge of coordinating security responses, has reported that an alert had been circulated to all police forces in the country. The centre however has noted that there are no immediate plans to raise the security level to the maximum, which would effectively indicate an imminent threat of an attack.
Newspaper DH quoted the alert from Belgium’s anti-terror cell as stating that the group “left Syria bout a week and a half ago aiming to reach Europe via Turkey and Greece by boat without passports.” The alert however did not give an exact departure date. The contents of the alert have been confirmed by a Belgian security source. DH has also reported that the fighters were armed and aimed to split into two units, one aiming to carry out attacks in Belgium while the other in France. Potential targets in Belgium included a shopping centre, a fast-food restaurant and a police station. The newspaper mentioned no specific targets in France, which is currently hosing the Euro 2016 football championships in ten stadiums across the country. The tournament will go until 10 July, with some 2.5 million spectators expected to watch the 51 games.
A source at France’s Interior Ministry has also disclosed that Belgian authorities had transmitted a note to their French counterparts, who are currently reviewing the information in the alert, adding, “we know the threat is very high…We’re reviewing all th elements (in the alert).” Speaking at a news conference, French government spokesman Stephane Le Foll disclosed “we know there are fighters who are coming back (to Europe),” adding that he could not confirm the specific alert from Belgium.
The alert comes just two days after an attack, who pledged allegiance to IS, killed a French police commander and his partner at their home outside Paris, and four days after a gunman declaring loyalty to IS massacred 49 people in a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida.
On 20 April, Belgian prosecutors announced that a suspect in the 22 March Brussels bombings has been charged with involvement in last year’s attacks in Paris, France. Osama Krayem, a 23-year-old Swedish national, was arrested in Brussels earlier this month. The Belgian judge responsible for the Paris attacks investigation has now charged him with terrorist murder and participating in a terrorist group. According to sources, he is suspected of purchasing the suitcases that were used to carry the Brussels bombs. Krayem was also caught on CCTV with metro bomber Khalid el-Bakraoui shortly before he blew himself up. He is already facing terrorism charges in relation to the Brussels attacks.
According to the Belgian federal prosecutor, Osama Krayem was picked up in Ulm in southern Germany by a hire car that was retuned by key Paris attacks suspect Salah Abdeslam and had travelled to Belgium. The prosecutor disclosed that ‘The investigation showed that (Krayem) could be placed in different safe houses used by the terrorist group,” including a location in Schaerbeek. Krayem grew up in Malmo in southwestern Sweden. According to a relative, her nephew “just disappeared” and later phoned his family to say that he had left to join the so-called Islamic State (IS) group. Last week, his lawyers disclosed that he was co-operating with the authorities.
In March, three suicide bombers killed 32 people at Zaventem airport and the Maelbeek metro station in Brussels, Belgium. He attacks occurred just days after the arrest in Brussels of Salah Abdeslam, who had been on the run for four months. Officials believe that the attacks in Brussels may have been moved up over concerns that Abdeslam would give critical information about the terrorist cell to authorities.
At least 31 people have been killed and dozens injured in attacks that targeted Brussels international airport and a metro station in the city. Authorities have warned that the death toll is likely to go up in the coming days as many of the injured are in serious condition. The so-called Islamic State (IS) group issued a statement on the IS-linked Amaq agency claiming responsibility for the attack.
Twin blasts targeted Zaventem international airport at about 08:00 local time (07:00 GMT), killing at least 11 people. The Belgian prosecutor has indicated that “probably a suicide bomber” was involved. The state-owned Belga news agency has reported that shots were fired and shouts in Arabic were heard before the two explosions. Some witnesses indicated that after the first blast, people fled only to get caught in the second blast. Public broadcaster VRT has reported that an assault rifle was found next to a dead attacker, with private broadcaster VTM adding that an unexploded bomb belt had been found. The airport is located 11 kilometres (7 miles) northeast of Brussels and last year, it dealt with more than 23 million passengers.
An hour later, shortly after 08:00 GMT, another explosion occurred at Maelbeek metro station during rush hour. The explosion struck the middle carriage of a three-carriage train while it was moving away from the platform. At least 20 people were killed in that attack. The station is located close to a number of European Union (EU) institutions. The European Commission, which is the EU’s executive arm, has told employees to remain indoors or at home. All meetings at EU institutions have been cancelled.
In the wake of the attacks, Belgium raised its terrorism alert to its highest level. Three days of national mourning have been declared. While the airport and the entire public transport system in Brussels is closed, some train stations are due to reopen shortly. All fights have been diverted. Eurostar has cancelled all trains to and from Brussels while the Thalys France-Benelux rain operator has indicated that the entire network is closed.
Across Europe, countries have also quickly reacted to Tuesday’s attacks. In the United Kingdom, security was increased at Gatwick and Heathrow airports, while the Foreign Office has advised British nationals to avoid crowded areas in Belgium. UK Prime Minister David Cameron also chaired a meeting of the Cobra response committee on Tuesday.
In France, officials have stepped up security, while the cabinet held an emergency meeting. French President Francois Hollande held a brief conference, where he stated that “the terrorists have stuck Belgium but it is Europe that was targeted. And it is the whole world that is concerned with this.”
Interpol on Friday warned that accomplices may try to flee across frontiers now that Salah Abdeslam was in custody.
The bombings come just four days after Salah Abdeslam, the main fugitive in the 13 November 2015 attacks in Paris, was seized during a raid in Brussels.
The 26-year-old French national, born in Belgium, spent four months on the run. It is believed that he fled shortly after the November attacks, returning to the Molenbeek district of Brussels. Investigators believe that he helped with logistics, including renting rooms and driving suicide bombers to the Stade de France. He was arrested 500 m from his home in Molenbeek. His brother, Brahim, was one of the Paris attackers who blew himself up.
Friday’s raid came after Abdeslam’s fingerprints were found in a flat in another Brussels district, Forest, which was raided on Tuesday.
On 20 March, Belgian Foreign minister Didier Reynders suggested that Abdeslam was preparing attacks in Brussels before he was arrested. Paris prosecutor Francois Molins also told reporters on Saturday that Abdeslam had admitted that he wanted to blow himself up during the Paris attacks but then changed his mind. Abdeslam is being interrogated in Belgium following his arrest in Brussels on Friday. Mr Reynders citied information that he said had come to light since Abdeslam’s arrest. He disclosed that Abdeslam “…was ready to restart something in Brussels…And its maybe the reality because we have found a lot of weapons, heavy weapons, in the first investigations and we have found a new network around him in Brussels.” Mr Reynders further disclosed that the number of suspects had risen markedly since the November attacks in Paris, adding “we are sure for the moment we have found more than 30 people involved in the terrorist attacks in Paris, but we are sure there are others.” Belgian authorities have charged Abdeslam with terrorism offenses. He is being held at a high-security jail in the Belgian city of Bruges. Abdeslam is now fighting extradition to France, which could take up to three months.
Another man arrested at the same time as Abdeslam on Friday, Monir Ahmed Alaaj, has also been charged with participation in terrorist murder and the activities of a terrorist group. Prosecutors have disclosed that Alaaj, who was injured during Friday’s arrests, had travelled with Abdeslam to Germany last October, where his fingerprints were taken during an identity check
While European security experts have been braced for another attack for months, such attacks continue to have a huge shock when it actually happens. If Tuesday’s attack in Brussels is what many have termed “revenge” for Friday’s arrest of Salah Abdeslam, it will be a source of great concern of authorities in the country as a functioning terrorist network was able to respond so quickly with such devastating effect. Over the weekend, Abdeslam’s lawyer disclosed that he was cooperating with Belgian authorities. It is therefore possible that a cell linked to Abdeslam brought forward the timing of a future attack in the believe that he might blow their cover. Either way, this attack shows how advanced the planning was in terms of logistics, explosives, weapons and people willing to carry out such attacks on civilian targets. Furthermore, while the priority of Belgian officials will now be to ensure that anyone else who poses an imminent threat to the public is apprehended as soon as possible, it is evident that Brussels is seen as a soft target in a county that continues to have huge gaps in intelligence.