Brussels is put on high alert as officials warn of ‘imminent threat’

By Anthony Faiola, William Booth and Emily Badger
Washington Post
November 21 2015

PARIS — The government abruptly shut down the metro system in Brussels, canceled sporting events and warned shoppers to stay away from malls as Belgium placed the capital on maximum alert early Saturday, citing a “serious and imminent” threat of attack.

Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel said Saturday morning that officials had identified shopping centers, public transportation and major events as targets of a possible attack, involving multiple assailants, similar to the deadly assault that struck Paris last Friday.

In Brussels, armed troops stood guard in front of hotels and at major intersections. There was a scattering of shop closures. At least four of the Islamic State militants who attacked Paris came from the same immigrant neighborhood of Molenbeek in the Belgium capital.

Police continue to hunt for one of the Parisian attackers, Salah Abdeslam, a 26-year-old French national who lived in Brussels and may have returned after the attacks.

The new threat alert in Brussels comes after European countries agreed Friday to new steps aimed at securing Europe’s frontiers, as further evidence emerged that extremists in the terrorist attacks in Paris were using the region’s porous borders to slip between the continent and the battlefields of the Middle East.

French prosecutors said Friday that they had confirmed that another of the suicide bombers who died in the attack on the Stade de France had traveled through Greece, adding more evidence of how militants have been taking advantage of the same routes used by migrants to flee into Western Europe from the war-torn Middle East. The man, officials said, had apparently entered Greece on the same date and location — Leros island on Oct. 3 — as another attacker who had arrived with a fake Syrian passport under the name Ahmad Almohammad.

The name of the second stadium bomber was not provided by prosecutors. But two senior security officials briefed on the investigation in two different countries said the man had traveled on a fake Syrian passport under the name Mohammad al-Mahmod.

Senior European officials meeting in Brussels agreed to implement a higher measure of monitoring at external borders, even as France extended its broad counterterrorism sweeps nationwide.

Currently, citizens of the European Union — unless they display suspicious behavior — face only cursory checks when arriving on flights from outside the 26 nations in Europe that share an open border treaty. The new policy would bring more scrutiny, including thorough passport checks against European watch lists.

Nine people were arrested in sweeps Thursday in Belgium in connection with the Paris attacks. Seven were released Friday without charges, and two remained in detention.

The Belgian federal prosecutor announced Friday that a person arrested in police raids in Brussels on Thursday was charged with participation in terrorist attacks and participation in the activities of a terrorist organization. No additional details were released.

In Paris, French officials said Friday that a third body — that of a male — was found in the rubble of Wednesday’s massive pre-dawn police raid in which Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the suspected ringleader of the Paris attacks, was killed. French officials now say that it was this newly uncovered but still unidentified third person who detonated a suicide vest in the apartment — not, as authorities had earlier reported, the lone woman in the group. She was officially identified Friday as 26-year-old Hasna Aitboulahcen. Prosecutors said a passport in that name was also found in the targeted apartment.

Police believe that Abaaoud fired one of the three Kalashnikovs on cafés in Paris last Friday night. Abaaoud was seen entering the metro system on video surveillance about half an hour after the attack on the Bataclan began at a station east of Paris near where police later found an abandoned Seat used in the attacks.

On Thursday, French officials said that a “non-European country” had provided information Monday that Abaaoud had passed through Greece, the single-largest gateway to Europe for a record flood of migrants. A senior police official said that at least one of the three suspects captured alive Wednesday had also been in Greece.

Abdeslam, 26, a French national now wanted in connection with the attacks, is also believed to have been stopped in Greece in August. Four other assailants are believed to have traveled through Europe to Syria, but their exact routes remain uncertain.

The confirmed death toll in the attacks rose Friday to 130, from 129. More than 350 people were wounded in the carnage.

With Europe confronting a heightened terrorist threat, the measures announced Friday underscored a trade-off between security and the open borders that the European Union once held dear. Moving to shut down a network of homegrown jihadists who are slipping undetected between the continent and the battlefields of the Middle East, officials agreed to come up with a proposal before the end of the year to enhance the ability to track airline passengers. Currently, passenger list information in Europe is kept for only a month. That could now be extended.

“A month to conserve data?” French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said Friday. “That’s definitely not enough.”

The measures were announced as a new terrorist crisis erupted in Mali on Friday and as France, still reeling from last week’s attacks, continued a swift crackdown on suspected Islamists by searching an ultraconservative mosque in Brest, on the Atlantic coast. In a sermon in May 2014, the mosque’s imam, Rachid Abou Houdeyfa, told children that they risked being turned into “monkeys and pigs” if they listened to music. Police searched the mosque after obtaining a lead from a previous raid, according to local officials.

French officials said that they have used broader powers under a state of emergency in effect since Nov. 13 to conduct 793 searches, detain 90 people, seize 174 weapons, confiscate 250,000 euros ($266,500) and place 164 people under house arrest.

Authorities said a three-month extension of the emergency laws, which was approved by legislators Friday, was necessary to ensure public safety after the discovery of another terrorist plot aimed at Paris. Wednesday’s raid in Saint-Denis thwarted a planned attack in La Defense, a suburb northwest of the capital, officials said. But the extension has also raised questions about the curbing of civil liberties and freedom of speech.

In the neighborhood of Champs-Plaisant in Sens, 77 miles southeast of Paris, officials imposed a curfew from 10 p.m. Friday through 6 a.m. Monday.

Pedestrian and car circulation is forbidden, except for emergency vehicles. The restrictions were imposed after SWAT teams staged a raid leading to the discovery of unauthorized weapons and fake documents. The city’s administration said that “a few” people were taken into custody.

Within the Muslim community, religious leaders were divided on whether the French measures were going too far. Samy Debah, 44, president of the Collective Against Islamophobia in France, said the government was casting too wide a net — and targeting some people who are innocent. He said one Belgian man, a convert to Islam who lives in the suburbs of Paris, complained that police wrongly searched his residence, breaking items before leaving.

“We’re going through a disastrous situation right now,” Debah said. “The government is making the same mistakes it did in January” during counter­terrorism raids after a rampage by three homegrown extremists against the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo and a kosher supermarket.

But Cazeneuve, the French interior minister, on Friday urged his counterparts in Europe to agree to fresh security measures, including more involved passport checks at Europe’s borders. He warned Friday that “we can’t lose any more time.”

The U.N. Security Council unanimously approved a French-sponsored resolution Friday calling on all nations to redouble and coordinate action to prevent further attacks by Islamic State terrorists and other extremist groups, the Associated Press reported.

The resolution says the Islamic State “constitutes a global and unprecedented threat to international peace and security,” and it expresses the council’s determination “to combat by all means this unprecedented threat.”

The measure is the 14th terrorism-related resolution adopted by the Security Council since 1999.

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