Brussels attacks: Suspect wounded, arrested in Belgian police operation
BRUSSELS, Belgium — Explosions and gunfire rang out Friday afternoon in Brussels — the focal point in Europe’s fight against terrorism following the bloody attacks there just three days ago.
A police operation took place in the district of Schaerbeek, near where a taxi driver on Tuesday picked up three men and brought them to Brussels Airport. There, two of those carried out suicide bombings while authorities think the other escaped; about an hour later, a fresh blast rocked a train near the Maelbeek metro station.
Witnesses told CNN they heard two explosions, while others reported gunfire.
One man said that his son, who has a shop inside the closed-off area, saw an armed individual emerging from a metro shop who was then shot in the leg by police.
The operation ended with the arrest of one person linked to Tuesday’s terrorist attacks in the Belgian capital, Schaerbeek Mayor Bernard Clerfayt told Belgian public broadcaster RTBF.
The mayor said that arrested person was wounded. It was not clear if that individual was the same one the shopkeeper saw shot in the leg.
Authorities earlier conducted searches in Schaerbeek for several hours Thursday into Friday morning, sealing off streets for several blocks. At one point, masked teams in hazmat gear could be seen exiting a building and heading toward a police van.
And — acting on the taxi driver’s tip — they’d raided a Schaerbeek apartment days earlier and uncovered 15 kilograms of the explosive TATP, chemicals, a suitcase with nails and screws, an ISIS flag and other equipment meant to make explosives, according to Belgian federal prosecutor Frederic Van Leeuw.
Van Leeuw also noted police found, on a computer in a nearby trash can, the will of one of the airport suicide bombers, Ibrahim El Bakraoui.
Can Europe stop the next attack?
These kinds of police actions suggest authorities’ urgency not only to learn more about what happened Tuesday in Brussels, but to prevent the next attack.
At least six people were arrested overnight in Belgium, while a man in France suspected of being in an “advance stage” of planning his own attack was also detained. Afterward, law enforcement found 2 kilograms (4.4 pounds) of TATP and a Kalashnikov rifle were found in a raid in Argenteuil on Paris’ outskirts, a source briefed on the investigation said.
Investigators know of additional plots in Europe, in various stages of planning, linked to the same networks behind November’s Paris attacks and the latest ones in Brussels that left 31 people dead and 300 more wounded, according to U.S. counterterrorism officials. Those terrorists are tied to ISIS, the Islamist extremist group that’s taken over swaths of Syria and Iraq while also lashing out elsewhere around the world.
There’s also a growing feeling that those opposing ISIS can do more. Some of this relates to continuing military efforts in the Middle East. Some has to do with better intelligence and cooperation among allies.
Belgium, especially, has come under fire. Interior Minister Jan Jambon offered to resign after acknowledging missed opportunities to stop one of the suicide bombers, Ibrahim El Bakraoui. And Prime Minister Charles Michel said he talked with Kerry about how “to do better (and) work together to be more efficient.”
Michel added, “We need to accept that we need to improve the fight against terrorism in Europe and in Belgium.”
Raids, roundup in Brussels
His government’s police forces arrested nine people total between Thursday and Friday evening, according to the federal prosecutor’s office.
Six were detained Thursday night — three outside the prosecutor’s office, two in a vehicle in Brussels’ Jette neighborhood, and one in a different part of the Belgian capital. Of those, three have since been released.
One man was injured in the leg and arrested Friday morning in Brussels’ Forest district, with another caught in Saint-Gilles. Lastly, there’s the Schaerbeek arrest Friday afternoon.
The tactic of detaining people first and asking questions later will likely become increasingly common, CNN national security analyst Juliette Kayyem said.
“There will be lots more of them,” she said. “They are going to be what’s called over-broad. They are going to just try to find people or evidence that may stop the next terrorism attack, and they will figure out who they have under custody.”
Report: Man detained in German had revealing texts
Arrests were carried out beyond Belgium and France.
In Giessen, a German town about 70 kilometers (43 miles) north of Frankfurt, police arrested a 28-year-old Moroccan man following a routine police check at a train station, German public broadcaster ARD reported Friday.
The ID check revealed that the man — a known delinquent in Italy and Germany, where he’s unsuccessfully requested asylum — is barred from much of Europe, according to the report. Another red flag came up later: He had checked into a hospital for an unspecified injury on March 18, the same day Paris attack suspect Salah Abdeslam was captured in a bloody raid in Brussels.
According to the ARD report, police later found a text message on the man’s phone that read “fin” (“end”) that came in a few minutes before the last Brussels explosion on Tuesday.
Another text contained the name of Khalid El Bakraoui, a man authorities believe blew himself up in Tuesday’s Brussels metro station attack, a source briefed by German officials told CNN. The arrested Moroccan received that message three minutes before the metro explosion, the source said.
It is believed the Moroccan had direct contact with the Brussels attackers’ immediate network in the house before those blasts, ARD reported.
Kerry: ‘We will not be intimidated’
Three of those involved, and killed, in the Brussels attacks have been identified: ISIS bomb-maker Najim Laachraoui and Ibrahim El Bakraoui at the airport, and El Bakraoui’s brother Khalid El Bakraoui on a train near the Maelbeek metro station.
Authorities also were looking for two other men.
One appears in surveillance footage holding a large bag at a Brussels metro station, according to Belgian public broadcaster RTBF. It is possible that he, like Khalid El Bakraoui, didn’t survive the subway blast.
The other is in another surveillance image wearing a hat and light-colored clothing alongside Laachraoui and Ibrahim El Bakraoui, with all three men rolling luggage carts through Brussels Airport.
This individual allegedly planted a bomb and left. That bomb didn’t go off immediately, though it did detonate later — by which time authorities were on site and no one was killed or injured. The U.S. government thinks they know this person’s name and are sharing that information with Belgian authorities, a U.S. official said Friday.
Secretary of State John Kerry vowed the same day that his government will “provide any assistance necessary” to Belgium in their shared fight against terrorism.
“We will not be intimidated, we will not be deterred, and we will come back with greater resolve, with greater strength,” Kerry said. “And we will not rest until we have eliminated your nihilistic beliefs and cowardice from the face of this Earth.”
‘We are not safe anywhere’
It’s hard to escape the tension in Brussels where soldiers line the streets near the central subway station, their hands gripping guns.
“We all know that we are not safe anywhere,” one woman said. “It can happen anywhere and at any moment.”
The effects are felt in many ways, including in neighborhoods swarmed by police and near the attack sites. Brussels Airport, for instance, won’t have passenger flights until Sunday at the earliest.
“Because the forensic investigation is still underway,” the airport explained on its website, “we currently have no access to the (bombed) building. Until we can assess the damage, it remains unclear when we can resume operations.”
A Belgian man said the whole atmosphere has “the feeling of war.” That may be true, but others welcome the added security.
“It makes me safe,” one woman said. “A lot safer.”