MS Risk Blog

Brussels On Edge: Fear at the Heart of a European Capital

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Since the attacks in Paris on November 13, Belgium has come under extensive international scrutiny. On November 26, the Belgian Government reduced the threat level in Brussels from 4 (the highest level) to 3. That concluded a five day period during which Brussels came to a virtual standstill. From November 21 to 25, the city was placed on a level 4 terrorism alert with public buildings, schools and public transit systems closed. In addition, the Belgian Government warned people not to gather in public or participate in demonstrations. On November 23, NATO and European Union facilities opened for the week with increased security and only essential personnel working. The headquarters of Belgium’s largest bank, KBC Groep NV, remained closed at the start of the business week.

In a highly unusual decision, the Belgian Government deployed hundreds of members of the Belgian Armed Forces onto the streets of Brussels. Hundreds of Belgian police officers searched for Salah Abdeslam (one of the Paris attackers) and other ISIS operatives. As of November 27, Abdeslam has not been captured and the public has been warned to remain vigilant. Even when the transit system was reopened on November 26, over 200 police officers were deployed at throughout the system. Belgium had previously conducted large counter-terrorism operations in January, but the November Brussels lockdown was far bigger in scale.

The intensity of the Belgian police operations over the past week has been unprecedented. On November 21-22 alone, police conducted at least 20 raids in Brussels and surrounding suburbs. Of the 16 people detained, 15 were ultimately released. The one individual kept in custody was charged on November 23 for his involvement with the Paris attacks and ISIS. Dozens of more police raids followed on November 21, with 21 people being detained with 17 being released. Two of the men arrested in the second round of raids were linked directly to the November 13 Paris Attacks. Hamza Attou and Mohammed Amri admitted they drove Salah Abdeslam from Paris back to Brussels on the evening of November 13. However, they denied any direct involvement with the attacks. Two other men, an unidentified French national and Moroccan national, were arrested in the Molenbeek neighbourhood. According to police, the Moroccan man’s vehicle contained two handguns.

Senior Belgium Ministers have said the increased alert level was due to specific intelligence about possible attacks in the Brussels area. Belgium’s Interior Minister, Jan Jambon, said there were particular fears of an imminent attack on November 22. Foreign Minister Didier Reynders has also stated that Belgian police are searching for “maybe 10 or more people in Belgium, maybe in neighbouring countries, present in the territory to organise some terrorist attacks.” Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel has assured his country that there were no longer imminent fears of a terrorist attack. However, he has warned Belgians that the threat of an attack, particularly in Brussels, is still a serious concern. Though the largest lockdown in modern Belgian history may have ended, anxiety continues to linger about Salah Abdeslam and ISIS.

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