NEW: Officials believe this is a new strategy from ISIS to organize attacks on nations in airstrike coalition
Counterterrorism official tells CNN that terrorists killed in Belgium raid had ties to ISIS
U.S. sources tell CNN that they knew of planned attacks and shared information with Belgians
The suspected Islamist terrorists who had a shootout with police on Thursday in Verviers, Belgium, have ties to ISIS-linked cells in other European countries, a senior Belgian counterterrorism source told CNN on Friday.
The two suspects who died in the shootout are believed to have fought with ISIS in Syria, the source said. Another man was captured but hasn’t revealed any information.
There also was a dire warning: Not all the terrorists in the cell have been rounded up, according to the source. Belgian police have taken out part of the terror network plotting an attack in Belgium, but they have not yet taken down every component of it, the source said. There is fear others may try to avenge the two men.
Authorities investigating the aftermath of the raid in which the men were killed found materials used to make bombs, including chemicals for the powerful explosive TATP, but the suspected terrorists had yet to assemble those weapons. They also had grenades.
Cell members had discussed attacking police in wiretapped phone conversations, but Belgian investigators still did not know what they were intending to target for sure, the source said. The discovery of police uniforms after the raid suggested the possibility they may have been trying to gain access to sensitive sites.
The source characterized the cell as one with organized structures, a logistical support network and links back to Syria and Iraq.
Belgium is one of the nations participating in airstrikes in Iraq, and officials are concerned this plot is ISIS “pivoting” to launch attacks on the European countries involved in the military action against their troops in Iraq.
“I think one of the things that’s happening is we’re seeing something that’s surprising me. That is the pivot of ISIS,” Philip Mudd. a former CIA counterterrorism official and a CNN analyst, said. “Just last summer, we were talking about how quickly ISIS was taking over geography. For a terrorist group to turn around in six or eight months and start training people for operations in Europe is remarkable.”
In the raid in Verviers, a city of about 56,000 people, police approached three suspects as they carried large duffel bags outside of a former bakery that might have been their lair, a Western intelligence source told CNN.
The suspects immediately opened fire with multiple weapons, prosecutors’ spokesman Thierry Werts said. Police returned fire; two gunmen were killed and another was arrested, federal prosecutor Eric van der Sypt said.
That raid turned up four Kalashnikovs, handguns, bomb-making materials and police uniforms, van der Sypt said.
Van der Sypt refused to name the two killed in Verviers, but said “we have a pretty good idea” who they were.
Answering reporters’ questions, the prosecutor would not comment on reported plans by the suspects to abduct or behead any victims.
The Belgian counterterrorism source said Belgian authorities had asked the CIA for help in finding the director of the plot, a Belgian who was in Greece. Neither the CIA nor Greek officials were able to locate the man. He is described as a key link to ISIS in Syria for the terror cell and once fought there.
Plot to kill police, prosecutor says
The two men killed in the shootout were among more than a dozen people rounded up in across-the-country raids designed to stop a group’s allegedly imminent attack – a plot to kill Belgian police in streets and stations – van der Sypt said earlier Friday.
The alleged plotters – including the two people killed Thursday night in a battle with police in Verviers – were confronted in 12 raids across Belgium from Thursday into Friday, Sypt said.
“Could have been hours, certainly no more than a day or two” before terror attacks were to begin throughout Belgium, van der Sypt told reporters of the alleged plot.
Besides the two killed, 17 have been arrested in the investigation – 13 in the Belgium raids and four others in France, including two who were detained while trying to cross from France into Italy, van der Sypt’s office said.
Investigators haven’t found any links between the alleged Belgium plot and last week’s Islamist terror attacks that killed 17 people in Paris, the prosecutor said. But the Belgium raids come amid fears of ongoing terror threats in Europe – as many as 20 terror cells with 120 to 180 people may be ready to strike in France, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands, a Western intelligence source told CNN.
Thursday night’s raids were a dramatic culmination in a chain of Belgian police investigations into an alleged terror cell that included people who had fought in Syria, van der Sypt said.
The U.S. intelligence community knew for weeks of the plot in Belgium and was sharing critical information with Belgian authorities, several U.S. officials told CNN.
The officials wouldn’t say precisely what they knew, how much they knew, and when they knew it. There is concern those details could signal other militants planning other potential attacks.
One U.S. official told CNN’s Barbara Starr the entire “developing plot was being monitored and watched.”
The official said, “We were aware. We were tracking this,” and added, “‘There is a high probability other attacks were being planned” before the plots were disrupted by the raids.
A European security source told CNN that Belgian authorities arrested two men returning from Syria over the weekend and interrogated them, then decided to act quickly. The United States was aware of the timing of the Belgian moves, U.S. officials said.
’Everybody can hear it’
Verviers is a little off the beaten path in eastern Belgium, the last stop before open fields and forest. Like many European towns, it’s densely built. People live close together.
The whole city must have heard the explosions and the gunfight, according to resident Frederic Hausman.
“I can hear it. Everybody can hear it,” he said. “In this little city, everybody heard the sound.” From his window, he could see police firing assault rifles at a nearby house.
Hausman recorded the assault on the house and posted it on YouTube.
The two who were killed were of North African descent, the Western intelligence source said.