Belgian authorities conducted several raids across Brussels on Friday night. Forty people were held for questioning after the raids and three individuals have been charged.
The New York Times reports that the raids were carried out in an effort to thwart suspected plans to commit terrorist acts in Belgium during the UEFA Championship games. Belgian police were made aware of a conspiracy to carry out an attack on fans watching the game between Belgium and Ireland. Like most fans across the world, Belgians were set to turn out in large numbers to support their national team in bars and public areas, making the population particularly vulnerable to terrorist attacks.
The raids come at a time of intense scrutiny for the Belgian authorities. The Belgian population is still reeling from the memory of the airport and subway attacks in Brussels back in March that killed 32 people. In the weeks following the bombings, details were revealed about how much officials had missed leading up to the attack, exposing distressing holes in the country’s counterterrorism efforts.
Reports revealed that Belgian security forces had missed numerous hints in the months before. An anonymous source cited by the Washington Post claimed Belgian officials were aware that one of the suicide bombers, Ibrahim el-Bakraoui, had travelled to Turkey with the intent of moving on to Syria to join Islamic militants. Another one of the suicide bombers, Najim Laachraoui, was linked to the Paris attacks in November through DNA evidence. Laachraoui managed to evade capture, manufacture explosives, and operate a terror cell in Brussels under the Belgian authorities’ noses. The Islamic State was responsible for both attacks.
Even before the March attacks, Belgian security officials were put in the hot seat after it was revealed the Paris terrorist attacks had been planned in Molenbeek, a Brussels neighborhood with a reputation as a jihadi breeding ground.
Numerous raids and arrests followed the attacks in March as Belgian police conducted raids in suspected areas in an effort to round up conspirators and prevent any follow-up attacks. In the three months since, Belgian officials have scaled up the number of raids and investigations in an effort to show the public its commitment to preventing terrorism.
The raids on Friday also suggest that Belgian officials are eager to act on information quickly. A statement released by the prosecutor’s office that same day indicated the need for “immediate intervention.” At present, authorities do not believe this plot is directly tied to the Paris or Brussels attacks.
The Belgian government did not provide much information about the raids. The arrested individuals were identified only by their first names and last initials: Samir C, Moustapha B, and Jawad B. The three men face charges of attempted terrorist murder and participation in the activities of a terrorist group, according to the Wall Street Journal. According to a statement, authorities did not find any weapons or explosives during the raids. The Belgium vs. Ireland game was played without incident, and the Belgian national team won the game in France with a 3-0 victory.
The ease with which individuals can move between countries and seek refuge in terror cells has prompted new questions about Europe’s vulnerability. An open Europe allows for easy movement across European borders, but it also helps facilitate terrorists’ movements as well. The presence of Laachraoui in Brussels after his involvement in the Paris attacks demonstrated that despite raids and investigations, European officials failed to dismantle the terrorist network that was involved. Additionally, distrust for government officials among some immigrant communities in European countries has created the kind of secretive environment ideal for Islamic State affiliates to plan their operations discreetly.
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