Two suspects in possession of Islamic State propaganda, military-style clothing, and computer hardware have been arrested in Belgium on suspicion of plotting a New Year's Eve attack on Brussels, according to an announcement by local prosecutors there Tuesday.
The two were arrested during a series of raids in the Brussels area and the nearby city of Liege, with authorities claiming they were part of a “serious threat” to several sites in Brussels’ tourist-packed city center, including the police headquarters and Grote Markt, the city’s most popular tourist attraction, according to Reuters.
The announcement comes only a month after Belgium became the focus of intense global scrutiny in the manhunt for perpetrators of the Nov. 13 terror attacks in Paris, which killed 130 people and were carried out by at least nine people with connections to the European nation. Among them is Belgian-born Salah Abdeslam, believed to be the only direct participant in the attacks who is still alive and on the loose.
Although the prosecutors’ office said this week’s raids are not connected to the Paris attacks, the announcement draws renewed attention to Belgium’s ongoing difficulties in staunching the rise of radical Islamism within its borders. Indeed, the country is believed to have more than 500 citizens fighting alongside ISIS in Iraq and Syria, a greater proportion than any other European country, the New York Times reports.
This “well-developed underground jihadist pipeline” has drawn the ire and fear of many Belgians over the past year, including King Philippe, who spoke in blunt terms of the country’s terrorist threat in his annual Christmas address to the nation last week.
“We continue, unfortunately, to be marked by the dramatic attacks perpetrated in Paris, and realize the dangers that continue to weigh on us,” he said, according to the Times. “The recent events proved how important it is to invest in justice, the police, the army and intelligence services.” (The King went on to point to the need for the country to also invest in ending “all forms of stigmatization and segregation, and helping people who are drawn to fanatical indoctrination to resist.”)
As the Times reported last week, Prime Minister Charles Michel has instigated a muscular response to the crisis, announcing major overhauls of both the police and military in the wake of the Paris attacks.
The government will spend 9.2 billion euros, about $10.1 billion, to replace the country’s aging F-16 fighter jets and buy two new warships, while the national police force will be restructured to send 2,500 more uniformed officers into the field and to focus their efforts around terrorism and major crimes.
The raids initially netted six suspects, but only two were held on terror charges, reports the Wall Street Journal. Of the two, one was described as “leading and recruiting” for a terrorist group and the other as “allegedly participating in a terror group's activities with the aim of committing terror offenses,” NBC News reports. The prosecutors office did not say whether the suspects were male or female and did not release any further information on their identities. No ammunition was recovered during the raids.
Meanwhile, the arrests threatened the uneasy calm that has returned to Belgium after a four-day lockdown in November during the manhunt for the Paris suspects. As the WSJ noted in the wake of today's announcement,
Since then, life has largely returned to normal in Brussels, albeit with a stepped-up presence of police and military personnel in shopping areas, hotels and government offices. Still, prosecutors have continued their investigation announcing a steady stream of searches and arrests connected to on going terror investigations.