Belgian Islamist cell was ‘hours away from attack’

Belgium army ordered into the street as terror sweeps across Europe net dozens of alleged jihadists

A policeman guards the Belgian Federal Prosecutor's office in Brussels, Friday, Jan. 16, 2015. (Photo credit: AP/Geert VandenWijngaert)
A policeman guards the Belgian Federal Prosecutor's office in Brussels, Friday, Jan. 16, 2015. (Photo credit: AP/Geert VandenWijngaert)

BRUSSELS — Belgium ordered its army into the streets and anti-terror raids across Western Europe netted dozens of suspects Friday as authorities rushed to thwart more attacks by people with links to Mideast Islamic extremists.

As anxiety soared in the wake of last week’s bloody spree in and around Paris, the broad scope of the police actions illustrated the challenges facing a continent threatened by Islamic militancy far from the battlefields of Syria, Iraq and Yemen.

Rob Wainwright, head of the police agency Europol, told The Associated Press that foiling such attacks by returning jihadists had become “extremely difficult” because Europe’s estimated 2,500 to 5,000 radicalized Muslim extremists have little command structure and are increasingly sophisticated.

French, German, Belgian and Irish police had at least 30 suspects behind bars on Friday and in Brussels, authorities said a dozen searches led to the seizure of four Kalashnikov assault rifles, hand guns and explosives. Several police uniforms were also found, which Belgian authorities said suggested the plotters had intended to masquerade as police officers.

A senior Western official told the TV station that European intelligence services believe there are some 20 jihadist sleeper cells in Europe.

The seizures followed a vast anti-terrorism sweep on Thursday in and around Brussels and the eastern industrial city of Verviers in which two suspects were killed in a firefight and a third wounded as police closed in on their hideout. Authorities said the overnight operation netted several returnees from Syria.

The dead Belgian suspects were named as Redouane Hagaoui, 22, also known as Abu Khalid Al Maghribi, and Tarik Jadaoun, or Abu Hamza Belgiki.

Federal magistrate Eric Van der Sypt said Friday the suspects were within hours of implementing a plan to kill police. He said authorities were reasonably confident they had dismantled the core of a dangerous terrorist cell but more suspects could be at large.

“The group was on the verge of carrying out terrorist attacks to kill police officers on public roads and in police stations,” Van der Sijpt told a news conference about the raids Thursday-Friday.

“I cannot confirm that we arrested everyone in this group,” he told reporters.

“Their plan was to launch attacks similar to that in London when a soldier was killed. They wanted to kill policeman on the street ,” he told the Daily Mail on Friday. In May 2013, British Fusilier Lee Rigby was brutally run over and hacked to death in the street by two Islamists who claimed they were avenging the killing of Muslim by the British Armed Forces.

Jewish schools in Brussels and the port city of Antwerp closed Friday. The raid comes less than a year after four people were shot dead in an attack on the Jewish Museum in Brussels. A Frenchman who fought in Syria has been charged with the murders.

The Belgian government’s move to send army troops into the streets beginning Saturday, as part of a 12-point, anti-terror plan lawmakers agreed to in the wake of Thursday’s deadly firefight, was welcomed in the port of Antwerp, which has a sizable Jewish community.

“You don’t have the firepower to stop people with weapons of warfare,” unless troops are involved, Antwerp Mayor Bart De Wever said. “We have an important Jewish community in this city which is very visible and an important target for Islamic terror,” he told VRT network.

The government will also expand legislation to make traveling abroad with a terror goal a crime and allowing authorities to seize the ID cards of people suspected of traveling to such areas.

Authorities have said there was no apparent link between the foiled plots in Belgium and last week’s terror attacks in Paris on a satirical newspaper and a kosher supermarket.

However, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls said Friday that while there was no apparent operational connection between the two terror groups, “the link that exists is the will to attack our values.”

The nine men and three women arrested in France overnight were to be questioned about “possible logistic support” they may have given to the Paris gunmen — Islamist brothers Said and Cherif Kouachi and Amedy Coulibaly — in particular weapons and vehicles, said a source.

Visiting the tense French capital Friday, US Secretary of State John Kerry met President Francois Hollande and toured the sites of last week’s attacks on the Charlie Hebdo weekly and the Hyper Cacher market. Twenty people, including the three gunmen, were killed.

One of the Paris attackers had proclaimed allegiance to the Islamic State group, and French and German authorities arrested at least 14 other people Friday suspected of links to the Islamic extremist group.

Another 13 people were detained in Belgium and two were arrested in France in a separate anti-terror sweep following the firefight Thursday in Verviers. And in Ireland, police arrested a suspected French-Algerian militant at Dublin Airport as he tried to enter the country using a false passport. The man, who was being interrogated, landed on a European watch list after expressing support in social media for last week’s attacks.

Authorities said most of those detained or killed in Belgium were citizens and some had returned from Syria, where 450 Belgians are believed to have joined the fight with Islamic radicals, according to Peter Neumann of the London-based International Center for the Study of Radicalization. He said about 150 have since returned home.

Belgium has one of the largest number of extremists who have returned from Syria relative to its population, with a large Muslim community that suffers from high unemployment and disenfranchisement.

Hollande said France was “waging war” on terrorism and it showed on the streets of Paris and elsewhere, where 122,000 police and well-armed troops have been deployed to protect the country, which is on high alert.

Illustrating the sense of high anxiety, a bomb scare forced Paris to evacuate its busy Gare de l’Est train station during Friday’s morning rush hour, though no explosives were found. A man also briefly took two hostages at a post office northwest of Paris, but police said the hostage-taker had mental issues and no links to terror.

In Germany, Interior Ministry spokesman Tobias Plate spoke of an “abstract high danger” following the arrests in Berlin of two men suspected of recruiting fighters for the Islamic State group in Syria. Prosecutors said 250 police officers participated in the dawn raids on 11 residences, part of a months-old investigation into Turkish extremists.

A poll carried out this week in the wake of the Paris attacks for ZDF television, showed 70 percent of Germans fear an attack on the country by Islamic extremists, up 10 percentage points from a survey taken in September. The poll, released Friday, questioned 1,287 people and had a margin of error of plus or minus three percentage points.

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