By Patrick BAHZAD
Early this morning, Brussels was rocked by a string of explosions which hit both the main airport terminal and the city's subway network, close to the headquarters of the EU. Based on what is known so far about the attacks, it looks like the death toll will be quite high and law enforcement will have their hands full going after the perpetrators of these cowardly attacks. However tragic the events unfolding before our eyes, it should be noted however that there were ominous signs regarding a paradigm shift within the Belgian Jihadi for some time already. Over a year ago, SST published a piece about the very same topic after a raid that was launched by Belgian police against a terrorist cell which had been planning attacks from the Eastern Belgian city of Verviers. It is no coincidence that some of the names mentioned in this piece rose to dubious fame since, in relation to the Paris attacks.
First published on January 16th 2015
Last night's raids by Belgian police (i.e. the raid of January 2015), and the ensuing shootout in the city of Verviers, bear the hallmarks of a gradual shift in the nature of the Belgian jihadi and radical Islamic scene. While authorities are denying any connections with the Paris attacks, there's enough circumstancial evidence to suggest a more complex picture.
Anyone who has ever been to Brussels could easily be fooled by the apparent tranquillity of the Belgian capital. If you had to ask Rummy, a.k.a. Donald Rumsfeld, he would tell you that this is deep "chocolate making country". But looks can be deceiving and Belgium has actually played a major role over the years in the spread of radical Islam and its most violent proponents, as evidenced by last night's events. Belgian Federal Police stormed a building in the small town of Verviers, 70 miles east of Brussels. Just like the previous week in Paris, the suspects came out all guns blazing, before being cut down by Belgian SWAT after a 10 minutes firefight. Two of the men were killed, a third one seriously wounded.
Wiretaps helped foil the planned attacks
Details are slowly emerging about the nature of the plot that was foiled by thursday's police operation. The two men killed had returned from Syria about a week ago. Wiretaps show they had been in contact with a third man, likely to be the leader of this "cell", whom Belgian police believe to be Abdelhamid Abaaoud.
Just like the two men killed in the assault, Abaaoud is originally from the area of Molenbeek, and had left for Syria to join ISIS. He's no longer fighting there however and is supposedly staying either in Turkey or Greece, from where he was coordinating the plans for the coming attacks. Finally, the man who was wounded and arrested in the Verviers raid, 25 year old Marouane El Bali, is another resident of the Molenbeek suburb of Brussels. His mother and cousin, who had initially also been taken into custody, have now been released.
According to several sources, the group had sent threatening letters to stores selling the "Charlie Hebdo" magazine and was planning for the bombing of Brussels' main court and attacks on police officers or police stations. This last piece of information in particular has raised concerns within Brussels' police to an even higher degree, given that several members of this police department had been under investigation for a number of months, on suspicion of having infiltrated the police on behalf of radical islamic groups.
Brussels … Europe's "secret" jihadi capital
To counter-terrorism analysts and experts, thursday's events don't come as any surprize. Belgium has been a hotbed of radical Islam in Europe for many years, even though it had mostly been spared the kind of bloodshed we recently witnessed in the streets of Paris.
In May 2014 however, Algerian-French Mehdi Nemmouche opened fire on visitors of the Jewish Museum of Brussels, killing four and injuring one. He was arrested a week later in Marseille, in Southern France, and is now awaiting trial. Nemmouche is yet another example of this new brand of jihadi who started out as a gang member, before turning to radicalism while serving time in prison, just like the Paris hostage taker Amedy Coulibaly (see "THE 'HYBRID' TERROR CELL BEHIND THE PARIS ATTACKS – Part 1").
The May 2014 attack in Brussels undoubtedly marked a turning point in Belgium's awareness of radical Islam and its proponents in the country. Up until then, Belgium had mainly served as a rear base for militants from various countries, particularly during the days of the Afghan Jihad and the Algerian civil war. Back then the country was seen as a convenient hideout for radicals who would take advantage of lax surveillance, combined with easy access to a flourishing illegal arms market and proximity to the French border, where some of the Belgian based radicals organised a major terror campaign back in 1995 and planned for another one, in 1998, that was foiled by French intelligence. Already back then, some of the associates of the Paris attackers had close links to the Belgian terrorist nexus.
But just as in France, the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, and more recently the start of the civil war in Syria, marked a quantum leap in the expansion of the Belgian jihadi scene. The country is home to a large Muslim community, with a strong Moroccan or Turkish background. In some areas with large Muslim populations, small political parties or militant groups have also surfaced advocating either for a greater visibility of Islam or the straight out introduction of sharia law.
Writing on the Wall
Belgium is also the European country that has sent the largest number of fighters to Syria (in per capita figures): according to conservative estimates, several hundred Belgian citizens have left to fight in Syria, with a substantial number having already returned. Mehdi Nemmouche, the shooter in last year's attack on the Jewish Museum, had joined ISIS in 2012, before coming back in March 2014, just one month before he went on his killig spree. And while technically, Nemmouche is not Belgian (he's Algerian-French), it should be noted that his place of birth is Roubaix, a French industrial town just south of the border.
This element actually points to the far reaching and longstanding connections that exist between jihadis in both countries. Interestingly, the brother of another notorious French terrorist, Mohamed Merah (involved in attacks against police and members of the French Jewish community that left 6 people dead in 2012) was frequently seen in a Brussels mosque, even though the Merah family was based 600 miles south of the Belgian capital.
Thursday's police raids definitely confirm that's Belgium's status in the landscape of Islamic radicalism in Europe has shifted: the three men who were shot yesterday in Verviers had recently returned from Syria and didn’t hesitate to use automatic weapons to attack the police.
Links to the Paris attacks
While Belgian police have emphatically denied any connection with the ongoing investigation into the Paris attacks, one cannot but wonder about possible links, in particular with Amedy Coulibaly. In fact, there were strong ties between Coulibaly and radicals in Belgium. In 2010 already, Coulibaly had been involved in another foiled terror plot in France (see "THE 'HYBRID' TERROR CELL BEHIND THE PARIS ATTACKS – Part 2") and had tried to buy weapons in Belgium.
The military grade arsenal that was found in connection with the Paris attacks have also been traced back to Belgium. In recent days, the town of Verviers – where last night's raid took place – was mentioned several times as one of the places where Coulibaly had been to get weapons. The small town in Eastern Belgium is known both as a hotbed for Islamic radicalism and a stronghold of organised crime. Kosovo-Albanian gangs control the illegal arms trade here and weapons are allegedly cheaper and easier to come by than in Brussels. But establishing a direct link between the Verviers group and Coulibaly would be far-fetched at this point, based on existing evidence, especially since the three men had stayed in Syria for an undetermined amount of time, while Coulibaly never left France to fight in the Middle-East.
It should be mentioned however that Coulibaly was known as a close friend and associate of a notorious ISIS-terrorist in Syria and had ties to a Tunisian radical who's also member of a group that has pledged allegiance to ISIS. Short of ISIS claiming and proving its responsibility, only time and a thorough investigation will prove whether or not these personal links might help establish a connection with the three Verviers terrorists.
Illegal arms trade
Finally, it should not be forgotten that the police raid in Verviers was by no means the only one to take place last night. In fact, search warrants were executed in various neighbourhoods of Brussels, where Coulibaly supposedly also bought automatic weapons as well as a Serbian made RPG. The suburb of Molenbeek in particular, home to two of the men targeted in thursday's raid in Verviers, has a well established reputation as a trading place for illegal arms.
In February 2013 for example, police arrested a local man after they had searched his home and found two AK-47s, several handguns, thousands of rounds of ammunition, explosives, chemical manuals, 130 000 US dollars' worth of gold and, even more chilling, a map of the London subway. Likewise, in 2012, a network of illegal arms dealers was dismantled in cooperation with French police. Serbian and Turkish criminals had set up this business and police managed to seize dozens of automatic weapons, several handguns, two RPG rockets and hundreds of rounds of ammunition.
Incidentally, the arms dealers were working hand in hand with a French gang from Roubaix, the very same town where Mehdi Nemmouche, the killer from the Jewish Museum, had started his career both as a criminal and a terrorist.