Report: Manhunt for Belgian terrorists

This article was published in the Sunday Times on Sunday, 18 January 2015. The piece was written by the Sunday Times’ correspondent in Paris, Matthew Campbell. I contributed to the report from Belgium, adding bits and pieces to the piece from Antwerp and Brussels.

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‘Ringleader of Belgian plot’ caught in Greece

GREEK police were reported last night to have arrested the alleged ringleader of a Belgian Islamist network that was broken up in a bloody shoot-out in Verviers last week as security was stepped up across Europe.

Abdelhamid Abaaoud, 27, from Brussels, was believed to be among at least four people seized in a raid in Athens. His fingerprints, photographs and DNA samples have been sent to Belgium.

Abaaoud attracted attention at home last year with videos on social media showing him towing the bodies of several executed Syrians behind a pick-up truck while laughing and shouting “Allahu akbar”.

He is also thought to have lured his brother, Younes, who turned 14 in December, to the organisation. The boy, hotographed holding a Kalashnikov, has been described as Isis’s youngest foreign recruit.

News of the apparent breakthrough came as Belgium deployed up to 300 armed troops on the streets of Brussels and Antwerp — home to a substantial Jewish community — in a continent-wide alert over an army of European “jihadists” who have fought for the Islamic State in Syria and are nowspreading terror at home.

Abaaoud’s father, a Moroccan shopkeeper in Brussels, was quoted by Belgian media as saying his elder son had died in fighting in Syria.

But Faroek Ozgunes, a Belgian terror expert, said he believed Abaaoud had faked his death for fear of being pursued on possible war crimes charges. He was thought to be living in Greece.

The heightened European alert and almost two dozen arrests in Belgium, Germany and France over the past two days followed attacks in Paris on the Charlie Hebdo satirical magazine on January 7 and a Jewish supermarket two days later in which 17 people died.

Belgian police said they had prevented a bloodbath with a series of raids, including the assault in Verviers, a well known hotbed of radical Islamism. Intercepts of phone conversations as well as intelligence provided by America’s FBI had suggested attacks in Belgium were imminent.

Confusion surrounded the identity of the two men killed in the raid after police sources denied earlier reports in the Belgian media naming them as Redouane Hagaoui, 22, and Tarik Jadaoun, 24.

There appeared to be no direct link between the Belgian network and the gunmen behindthe slaughter in France. However, it appeared that the group had planned to time the attacks, including the beheading of an official and an assault on government buildings, to coincide with the appearance in Belgian shops of the latest edition of Charlie Hebdo, which has infuriated Muslims around the world with its cartoon depictions of the prophet.

The magazine’s latest cover, showing a tearful Muhammad saying “Je Suis Charlie” prompted protest marches on Friday from Pakistan to Niger, where four people were killed.

In Germany, several people were arrested after reports that extremists were planning attacks on railway stations in Berlin and Dresden, birthplace of the Pegida “anti-Islamisation” movement. A plot against the Vatican was also exposed.

In France, where up to 4m people took to the streets last weekend in defiance of terror, an “anti-Islamisation” march scheduled for today was declared illegal by the interior ministry amid fears of a backlash against Muslims.

In Belgium, Eric van der Sypt, a federal magistrate, said the dismantled terror cell had “wanted to kill police officers on the streets and in police stations. They were planning attacks all over Belgium.”

Authorities had captured core members of the group, but more suspects could still be at large, he said, adding: “I cannot confirm we arrested everyone in this group.”

French police said they had arrested 12 people suspected of giving “logistical support” to Saïd and Chérif Kouachi, the Charlie Hebdo killers, and to Amedy Coulibaly, a self-proclaimed “soldier of the caliphate” who shot dead a policewoman on January 8 and four hostages in a Jewish supermarket the next day.

Saïd was buried in an unmarked grave in Reims, the cathedral city in which he had lived, on Friday night. Only a few family members — under police guard — attended. Chérif, his brother, is to be buried in the Parisian suburb of Gennevilliers.

Last week the Yemen-based al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula took credit for the brothers’ attacks. Two Frenchmen with links to the group were arrested in Yemen. Some of the alleged accomplices of the French killers were said to have been identified by DNA on pizza crusts found in a flat used by Coulibaly. DNA found on a pistol he used to shoot his hostages was identified as that of a suspected accomplice thought to have shot a jogger at random in order to try out the gun.

It emerged that Coulibaly had visited Crete, Malaysia and the Dominican Republic, and had driven his wife, Hayat Boumeddiene, and four others to Madrid from Paris late last year before returning to Paris alone to carry out his attacks.

Boumeddiene, France’s most wanted woman, flew with Mehdi Belhoucine, another suspected accomplice, from Madrid to Turkey on January 2. The two later crossed into Syria. Police believe Belhoucine’s brother, Mohamed, and the latter’s wife and child went with them.

The Belhoucine brothers had been employed as “leisure centre” co-ordinators in the town hall of Aulnay-sous-Bois, a Parisian suburb.

Other suspected accomplices are about to be extradited to France from Bulgaria. They include Fritz-Joly Joachin, a suspected Isis recruit of Haitian origin who was in contact with Coulibaly. Another man suspected of involvement in a jihadist recruitment pipeline had been travelling with them.

According to a western intelligence source, up to 180 suspected Islamist extremists from about 20 “sleeper cells” could be involved in planning attacks on European soil.

Rob Wainwright, the head of Europol, said it was hard for officers to identify every plot because they often involved individuals who could be “self-radicalised” and not necessarily under a “command-and-control structure”.

Soldiers guarded Antwerp’s synagogue yesterday amid fears that the city’s Jewish community could be targeted after an attack on a Jewish museum in Brussels last year in which four people were killed.

Almost 50 extremists are on trial in Antwerp for links to a group accused of sending Belgian fighters to Syria.

Additional reporting: Louise Callaghan, Joe Mayes and Laurens Cerulus

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Belgian special forces securing high-risk location in Antwerp (credit: Laurens Cerulus)

You can find the full piece as published here (PDF).


About laurenscerulus

AKA reporter for Deutsche Welle, The Independent, Monocle24... AKA editor @ FKA trainee journalist @ BBC World Service, Monocle, De Morgen, MO* FKA foreign editor @ Veto student newspaper, Belgium. FKA student of modern history @ KULeuven | international relations @ UCLouvain.

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