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.
Last year, a record number of terrorist attacks were planned, foiled or carried out within European Union (EU) countries, with the United Kingdom reporting the highest number of attacks.
EU law enforcement agency Europol has reported that in 2015, there were 211 attack, the highest since records began in 2006. The failed, foiled and completed terrorist attacks occurred in six EU member states: Denmark, France, Greece, Italy, Spain and the UK. Of these countries, the UK had the highest number of attacks, 103 in total, in which most are believed to have been in Northern Ireland.
France had the highest number of planned, foiled or completed attacks – 72 – followed by Spain with 25. A spokeswoman for Europol has disclosed that it did not have a breakdown of the number of terror attacks that had actually been carried out in the EU.
According to the agency’s EU Terrorism Situation and Trend Report, there were 1,000 arrests for terrorist-related offences last year, in which 424 occurred in France. Europol has further reported that more than half of arrests that occurred in the EU – 687 – were “for jihadist terrorism,” adding that of these arrests, 94% were later found guilty in court. In addition to the jihadist terrorist arrests, there were 67 arrests for left-wing terror; 11 for right-wing terror; and 168 separatist. A further 144 arrests were unspecified. Europol has reported that 151 people died and that more than 360 were injured in terrorist incidents that occurred last year.
In its report, Europol states that “as in previous years, the attacks specifically classified as separatist terrorism accounted for the largest proportion, followed by jihadist attacks.” Europol also noted that the report outlines two “worrying developments,” stating that “the overall threat is reinforced by the substantial numbers of returned foreign terrorist fighters that many member states now have on their soil, and the significant rise in nationalist (xenophobic), racist and anti-Semitic sentiments across the EU, each resulting in acts of right-wing extremism.” While Europol has indicated that there was “no concrete evidence to date that terrorist travellers systematically use the flow of refugees to enter Europe unnoticed,” it noted that two of the men who carried out the 13 November terror attacks in Paris France, which killed 130 people, had entered the EU through Greece as part of the influx of refugees from Syria.
The report also highlighted that nuclear power plants and nuclear weapon facilities in the EU “remain potential targets for terrorists,” as does “the deliberate contamination of water supplies,” adding “explosive remnants of war and illicit trafficking in explosives from former conflict areas present a significant threat to the EU.” The report goes on to state that “chemical facilities or companies, especially these perceived as having a low profile until recently, can become a vulnerable target,” adding, “terrorists prefer the use of conventional firearms and explosives because of their availability, simplicity and effectiveness. Europol also described cyber terrorism as “high potential but currently low probability.”
France’s National Assembly voted this month in order to extend the state of emergency for six months. The move follows the attack in Nice in which 84 people were killed and scores injured when a lorry was driven into crowds. It also comes after President Francois Hollande stated earlier this month, and prior to the attack in Nice, that he did not intend to extend the state of emergency beyond 26 July.
The latest extension effectively brings the state of emergency until the end of January 2017. It is the fourth extension that France’s parliament has proposed and the move must be approved by the Senate. The last extension was to cover the Euro 2016 football tournament and the end of the Tour de France cycling race.
As France continues to grapple with the growing threat from jihadist militants, Prime Minister Manuel Valls has warned that France must expect more deadly attacks despite precautions taken by his government. Speaking at the debate in the National Assembly, Valls stated that France would have to learn to live with the threat. He went on to say that “even if these words are hard to say, its my duty to do so…There will be other attacks and there will be other innocent people killed. We must not become accustomed, we must never become accustomed, to the horror, but we must learn to live with this menace.”
The state of emergency was initially brought in after terror attacks occurred in Paris in November 2015, in which 130 people were killed. That attack was claimed by the so-called Islamic State (IS) group. The emergency measures give the police additional powers to carry out searches and to place people under house arrest.
Questions however have emerged over what impact the emergency measures have had on the country. A recent commission of inquiry found that the state of emergency was only having a “limited impact” on improving security. It further questioned the deployment of between 6,000 and 7,000 soldiers to protect schools, synagogues, department stores and other sensitive sites.
French authorities have disclosed that they have identified the commander of the 13 November 2015 Islamist militant attacks in Paris. They have further disclosed that Abdelhamid Abaaoud, who was cornered and killed by police just days later, played a lesser role in the attacks.
Newly published official documents cite testimony by Bernard Bajolet, France’s head of external security, to a closed-door parliamentary inquiry into France’s anti-terrorism activities on 24 May. Bajolet however did not identify who authorities now think was the commander, nor did he disclose whether the person is alive or dead.
Abaaoud was initially described as the leader of the machinegun and suicide bomb attacks on the Bataclan music hall, Paris bars and restaurants, and the Stade de France, in which 130 people were killed. During the inquiry, Bajolet is quoted as stating, “it is true that Abaaoud was a coordinate, but he was not the commander…We know who the commander is, but I will stay discreet on that point,” adding, “we now have a good knowledge of the organogram…We have made progress on these subjects, we therefore have an idea of the identity of the commander.”
Last week, Parliament published recommendations of the inquiry, and on Tuesday 12 July, it released its full report.
UK Prime Minister Theresa May has announced that Britain’s security measures are being reviewed in the wake of the attack in Nice.
As armed police stood guard at the French Embassy in London, Mrs May stated that the nation “must redouble our efforts to defeat these brutal murderers who want to destroy our way of life.” She continued to state that “the threat level here in the United Kingdom is already at severe – that means a terrorist attack is highly likely,” adding, “senior officials today will be reviewing what more we can do to ascertain whether there is any further action to take.” She also stated that the capital stands “shoulder-to-shoulder” with France as it has done in the past and asserted “we must work with our partners around the world to stand up for our values and for our freedom.”
The National Police Chiefs’ Council has revealed that forces are reviewing the policing of large public events over the next seven days in order “to ensure the appropriate security is in place.”
Meanwhile Germany has also stated that it is increasing its border controls at airports as well as road and rail crossings into France. Prime Minister Charles Michel has stated that security is also being increased in Belgium ahead of a national holiday on 21 July.
On Thursday 14 July, at least 84 people, including several children, were killed and dozens more hurt after a man drove a lorry into crowds who had gathered to celebrate Bastille Day along the famous Promenade Des Anglais in the French seaside city.