Belgian terror suspects wore all black; police killed 2, wounded and arrested 1 – CNN
(CNN)As neighboring France buried three more of the 17 people recently slain by Islamist terrorists, Belgian police pounced on a radical cell that they say was about to strike.
Officers killed two suspects, and wounded and arrested a third on Thursday.
Like the Paris killers, the three suspects in the town of Verviers were seen dressed in all black. They carried large duffel bags outside of a former bakery, a Western intelligence source said. It may have been their lair.
Police recovered four Kalashnikovs, bomb making materials and police uniforms, the source said.
Fear of terror was already high in Western Europe after multiple threats of attacks from ISIS and al Qaeda’s Yemen arm, which also claimed responsibility for the Paris blood baths. After the Belgium raid, it spread again through neighboring countries, as intelligence officials spoke of a possible mobilization of terrorists living in them.
Up to 20 sleeper cells
Men claiming to be ISIS terrorists and speaking French promised new attacks in France, Belgium, Germany and Switzerland, in an online video found on Thursday. ISIS has said it would lash out at European countries participating in bombardments of its positions in Syria and Iraq.
More than 3,000 Europeans have left to fight in Syria in recent years. Authorities fear they could return and carry out attacks at home.
British intelligence has also warned another Islamist group in Syria was planning “mass casualty attacks against the West,” an apparent reference to the Khorasan group.
The current potential for new attacks could involve up to 20 sleeper cells of between 120 to 180 people ready to strike in France, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands, said the intelligence source, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The European Union and Middle Eastern intelligence agencies identified an “imminent threat” to Belgium, possibly also to the Netherlands, the source said.
Since the Paris shootings, investigators across Europe have sped up their work. French police made 12 new arrests on Friday in the shootings at the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and at a kosher grocery store.
Belgian authorities are currently carrying out additional operations in other cities, a Belgian counterterror official said.
In neighboring Germany, police arrested men in at least two cities they accuse of supporting jihadis in Syria. These suspects did not appear to be planning homegrown attacks, German authorities said.
Small town firefight
The whole town of Verviers must have heard the explosions and the exchange of gunfire with alleged terrorists on Thursday, Frederic Hausman thinks.
With 56,000 inhabitants, the quaint city lies a little off the beaten path in eastern Belgium, the last stop before open farm fields and forest. Like many European towns, it’s densely built. People live close together.
The suspects opened fire with multiple weapons as soon as the raid kicked off, said prosecutors’ spokesman Thierry Werts.
“I can hear it. Everybody can hear it,” Hausman said. “In this little city, everybody heard the sound.” From his window, he could see police firing assault rifles at a nearby house.
Another explosion. Smoke rose. Glass shattered. People shouted. Hausman recorded it, and posted it on YouTube.
When quiet returned, two male suspects of North African descent were dead.
Verviers is home to many people with Moroccan roots, according to a study by the nearby University of Liege. Immigrants make up more than 11% of the population with the largest contingency coming from other European countries.
Unemployment was already at 20% in the town before the economic crisis struck.
Verviers is about 69 miles (111 kilometers) east-southeast of Brussels and 200 miles (322 kilometers) northeast of Paris.
Wearing all black
The raid was a dramatic culmination in a chain of Belgian police investigations into an alleged terror cell that included people returning from Syria, Werts said.
Police had arrested, questioned and searched a Belgian arms dealer allegedly aligned with ISIS and suspected of providing weapons to Amedy Coulibaly, the man who attacked a Paris kosher supermarket. In the process, police turned up names that solidified their suspicions about known persons, the Western intelligence source said.
On the weekend, they arrested two more men at the Charleroi airport — as they returned from Syria — squeezed them for information then decided to act quickly, the source said.
“The investigation made it possible to determine that the group was about to carry out major terrorist attacks in Belgium imminently,” Belgian prosecutor spokesman Werts said.
Authorities believed the suspects in Thursday’s gun battle had been providing documents and weapons to men returning from Syria, the intelligence source said. A senior Belgian counterterrorism official told CNN that the alleged terror cell is believed to have received instructions from ISIS.
Dozens on trial
The raid was set before the background of the terror trial of dozens of men suspected of recruiting Jihadis or trying to go to Syria to fight themselves. An Antwerp court was to return verdict this week but postponed it due to the Paris attacks.
CNN affiliate VTM reported that the terrorism investigation in Belgium started weeks ago, and there has been no connection established with the Paris attacks.
But then Western intelligence source said the Paris attacks played a role in accelerating the timing of the Belgian operation.