Belgium law enforcement has raised its terror alert level within Brussels to the highest possible, citing “imminent threats” that orders taking specific security measures as well as specific recommendations for the population. The announcement on Saturday came from the Crisis Centre of the Belgian Interior Ministry. Law enforcement is advising the public to avoid places where large groups gather – such as sporting events, airports and train stations. The rest of Belgium remains at its current terror level. Belgian prime minister Charles Michel said the alert was “based on quite precise information about the risk of an attack like the one that happened in Paris … where several individuals with arms and explosives launch actions, perhaps even in several places at the same time.”
The increase in alert level for Brussels comes as authorities investigating last week’s terror attacks in Paris conduct raids in Belgium as they work to identify and take down the network of terrorists behind the carnage. Salah Abdeslam, 26, is the subject of an international search warrant. He was last seen driving toward the Belgian border when police stopped and questioned him a few hours after the attacks, not knowing that he was allegedly involved. His whereabouts are unknown. Investigators are trying to determine how a network of primarily French and Belgian attackers with links to ISIS in Syria carried out the deadliest violence in France in decades — and how many may still be on the run. Turkish law enforcement uncovered a possible link with the arrest of three people including 26-year-old Belgian Ahmet Dahmani, who is suspected of scouting some of the Paris attack sites. The other two suspects were Syrian and are accused of coming to Turkey to escort Dahmani back to ISIS areas within Syria.
Abdeslam is one of two brothers allegedly involved in last week’s coordinated attacks at the Bataclan concert hall, outside the French national soccer stadium and at restaurants in Paris. Though he’s a French national, he was born in Belgium. Belgium — with a population of just 11 million — has the highest number per capita of militants fighting in Syria and Iraq, experts say. That’s one of several connections between this latest attack and Belgium, a country seen as fertile ground for jihadist recruiters. It’s where members of a suspected terror cell waged a deadly gun battle in January with police and where three Americans in August overpowered a radical Islamist gunman on a Paris-bound train.
It was also home to suspected ringleader Abdelhamid Abaaoud. He was killed during a dramatic raid that shook the Saint-Denis neighborhood outside Paris and collapsed an entire floor of an apartment building. French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said Abaaoud “played a decisive role” in the Paris attacks and played a part in four of six terror attacks foiled since spring, with one alleged jihadist claiming Abaaoud had trained him personally. The last time any part of the country was put on maximum alert was in May 2014 when a gunman shot dead four people at the Jewish Museum in Brussels. At that time, Jewish schools, synagogues and other institutions were put on level four. The capital as a whole was last at level four for about a month at the end of 2007 and the start of 2008, when authorities intercepted a plot to free convicted Tunisian Nizar Trabelsi. Brussels’ traditional New Year fireworks display was cancelled.