Terror concerns cancel New Year's eve fireworks in Brussels
The Belgian capital is at the center of anti-terror operations
Three arrests this week end a year of ISIS-related threats
Citizens living in Brussels also took part in Paris attack
Bars and restaurants around the Grand Place, the iconic, historical central square of Brussels, are emptier than usual at this time of year after Belgian police Monday night broke up a plot to target the square and other crowded spaces in Brussels during New Year festivities.
Then, late Wednesday came news of new raids and an arrest – connected to the Paris attacks – in Molenbeek, just a 20-minute walk from the Grand Place across a canal. It was another reminder of the terrorist threat faced by this small European country.
Authorities also canceled the New Year’s Eve fireworks display scheduled to take place near the Grand Place because of the ongoing security concerns, which Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel addressed on Belgian television: “I believe that we are being confronted with a new stage in the history of Europe. The European authorities need to do more. We have to defend our way of life, our freedom to go to the cinema, to go to the theatre, to go out. We all have to be mobilized.”
For Belgium, 2015 opened with a deadly commando raid in eastern Belgium thwarting an ISIS gun and bomb plot, and ended with several Brussels residents participating in the worst attack in modern French history.
Brussels, the capital, was placed on maximum alert and virtually shut down for several days in November.
And now, two members of the Kamikaze riders, a Muslim biker gang are arrested for allegedly plotting an attack on the Grand Place. The two arrested are Said Souati, the founder of the biker group who had previously been on the radar screen of counter-terrorism investigators, and a man known as Mohamed Karay. The two men are scheduled to appear before a Belgian magistrate Thursday.
According to a senior counter-terrorism official here, police moved in quickly to make arrests after they learned the duo were discussing hitting crowded spaces in Brussels, as well as police stations and military facilities because they feared the pair had easy access to guns. No weapons or explosives were found.
Unlike in the wake of the Paris attacks, Belgium’s threat center OCAM did not raise the terror alert to the maximum level of 4 in Brussels after they learned of the plot. It is currently at 3 or “serious” for the whole of Belgium.
On November 20, a week after the Paris attacks, Brussels was virtually shut down for five days, after the center assessed there was a serious and imminent threat.
In an exclusive interview with CNN Wednesday, André Vandoren, the head of OCAM, said he received specific information from Belgian security services on the afternoon of Friday November 20 which gave him little choice but to raise the threat level in Brussels for 48 hours.
“The only thing I can say is we got information that something was possible imminently,” he said.
Two Belgian security sources told CNN that one of the key things which triggered the concern was a text message which was intercepted suggesting the possible intent to launch an attack in Brussels within the next day.
Vandoren said that on Sunday November 22 a second piece of intelligence resulted in the maximum threat level being extended beyond the initial 48 hours, and security services launching raids across the country. It was not until November 26 that the threat was no longer considered imminent, and the city slowly returned to its normal rhythms.
“ISIS has created a whole new dimension to the threat. It’s the first time a movement has posed a truly global threat,” Vandoren said.
One reason Belgium is in the crosshairs is the number who have traveled from here to join ISIS. Another is that Belgium is carrying out airstrikes against the group in Iraq.
Vandoren told CNN that Belgian extremists began traveling to Syria very early in the Syrian civil war and that the latest official estimate was that 272 had traveled to Syria and Iraq, with at least 121 back in Belgium.
Several residents of Brussels – some of who had joined ISIS in Syria – participated in the Paris attacks. One of the attackers was Salah Abdeslam, a French ISIS operative who is still on the run. Multiple Belgian officials tell CNN the trail for Abdeslam went cold the day after the attacks and his last known location was the Schaerbeek district of Brussels.
André Jacob, the former head of Islamist counter-terrorism in Sûreté de l’État, Belgium’s intelligence service told CNN he believes Belgian authorities are arresting radical associates of Abdeslam to prevent them from giving him shelter, and thus box him in.
Ten individuals have now been detained in Belgium for suspected links to the Paris attacks. So far, they are all believed to have been on periphery of the plot and several were arrested because they were in touch with the plotters by phone in the lead up to the attack, according to a Belgian security source.
At least one individual suspected of playing a coordinating role in the plot was in Belgium the night of the attacks and remains unaccounted for.
Paris attack ringleader Abdelhamid Abaaoud and one of the Bataclan attackers were in touch through phone communications the night of the attacks with at least one individual in Belgium, a senior Belgian counter-terrorism official and a source briefed on the French investigation told CNN, suggesting possible coordination of preparations for the attack from Belgium.
Investigators retrieved a Samsung phone from a trash can outside the Bataclan after the attack, and discovered 25 messages in it exchanged with a phone located at that time in Belgium, according to the sources. Abaaoud that night was in touch with a second phone located in the very same location in Belgium, the sources told CNN.