Terrorism Suspects Are Detained in Police Sweeps Across Europe


Investigators checked the entrance of an apartment in the east of Belgium on Friday. CreditYves Herman/Reuters

BRUSSELS — European investigators moved on a broad front Friday to sweep up suspected militants, with the police announcing that 13 Belgians had been detained in this country and two in France, a day after two other Belgians believed to be planning an attack on police officers were killed in a shootout.
In an action that the authorities said was unrelated to events in Belgium, investigators in Paris said 12 people had been detained overnight. Investigators said they might have belonged to a previously undetected cell that supported one of the gunmen in the terrorist attacks that left 17 people dead in and near Paris. And in Berlin, investigators said they had seized two suspected militants in a series of raids.

The scope and breadth of the police actions across much of Western Europe dramatized the diffuse challenges facing a region far from the battlefields of Syria, Iraq and elsewhere as it becomes a reluctant front against Islamic militancy.


The threat sometimes seems hydra-headed. European investigators and counterterrorism forces face a threat from hundreds of citizens returning from jihad in the Middle East with the skills and determination to transpose their war on the West to the cosseted boulevards and suburbs of major European centers.

The authorities are struggling to understand how their hidden adversaries operate. Sometimes they work as so-called lone wolves. Sometimes they work in secretive cells. And in some cases they are inspired by — or directly linked to — militant groups such as Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula or the Islamic State.

It is battle without clear-cut victories.

“Let’s say we have arrested already the people that we wanted to arrest,” said Eric Van Der Sypt of the office of the Belgian federal prosecutor on Friday, referring to the latest detentions.

“But I cannot confirm that we have arrested everybody from this group, of course — that’s for the investigation to show,”

Mr. Van Der Sypt said, “I have no idea if we diminished” the terrorist threat in Belgium. But he said the Belgian authorities had thwarted attacks on Thursday that might have been only hours away. “I think we gave an important blow to terrorism in Belgium,” he said.

In Verviers, the eastern Belgian town where two suspects died in a police shootout on Thursday, the authorities found several police uniforms, walkie-talkies, radios, falsified documents and weapons including four AK-47s. In Molenbeek, on the outskirts of Brussels, the authorities found a firearm, ammunition and a knife.

Mr. Van Der Sypt confirmed “plans to assassinate a policemen in the street,” or at a police station, but could he could not confirm reports in the Belgian media of plans by the suspects to abduct and behead a Belgian law enforcement officer.

He would not comment on links between the suspects with Al Qaeda or with other terrorist groups. Most of the suspects were Belgian citizens, he said, but did not identify them by name.

Two of the suspects, also Belgian citizens, were arrested in France after fleeing the raids on Thursday.

Mr. Van Der Sypt said several of the people arrested in Belgium had been in Syria, but he declined to say whether they included the two people shot to death on Thursday.

In Quimper, France, the prime minister, Manuel Valls, said he did not believe there was a direct connection between the events in Belgium and the carnage in France last week, when gunmen conducted a three-day onslaught that left 17 people dead. “There doesn’t seem to be a link, but we must always remain cautious,” he said. “France must protect itself against this jihadist terrorism, this radical Islam.”

He spoke after prosecutors questioned a dozen people held overnight.

Agnès Thibault-Lecuivre, a spokeswoman for the Paris prosecutor, said 12 people detained in Paris overnight belonged to the “entourage” of Amedy Coulibaly, one of the three gunmen involved in the attacks in and near Paris.

“We believe that they provided logistical support,” Ms. Thibaut-Lecuivre said. She did not give further details about the suspects, eight men and four women.

Mr. Coulibaly was accused of killing a police officer on Jan. 8 and taking hostages at a kosher supermarket in eastern Paris the next day, killing four of them.

Two other attackers, the brothers Saïd and Chérif Kouachi, began the onslaught on Jan. 7 with an attack on the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo. The three gunmen were killed in virtually simultaneous police operations.

In Germany, the police have arrested two Turkish men suspected of having links to an organization supporting the militant group Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, and other radical groups fighting in Syria. In a statement, prosecutors in Berlin said they had no indication that the men had immediate plans to stage an attack.

It was not immediately clear whether the arrests in Berlin were linked to other investigations in Europe. But the sudden flurry of activity seemed to reflect heightened alarm after last week’s assaults in Paris, where, on Friday, Secretary of State John Kerry metwith Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius and then with President François Hollande.

In Belgium, Thierry Werts, a representative of the federal prosecutor, said that the targets of several raids on Thursday had been plotting “imminent” attacks on a substantial scale in the country.

The raids were said to have been aimed at people who had joined Islamic extremist groups in Syria or other battle zones, and then returned to Europe — a category of militants that has troubled intelligence and security services since well before the Paris attacks.

In Germany, prosecutors said that 250 officers had raided 11 apartments after months of tracking a group that was said to support the Islamic State with money and the recruitment of combatants. Both of the arrested men were Turkish citizens.

One of the detained men, identified only as Ismet D., 41, in keeping with German privacy laws, is suspected of serving as an “emir,” or leader, of a radical Islamist group that was not identified by name. “He is suspected of radicalizing this extremist group through ‘Islam lessons’ he held, and encouraging participation in jihad against ‘unbelievers’ in the war in Syria,” prosecutors said.

The other man, identified only as Ermin F., 43, is suspected of providing financial support to members of the group and of helping them prepare for travel to Syria.

As the waves of alarm spread, the only Orthodox Jewish school in the Netherlands was closed on Friday, Reuters reported, even though there was no specific threat against it. In Belgium, Jewish schools in Antwerp and Brussels were also closed temporarily, Reuters said.

Rabbi Avraham Gigi, a leader of the umbrella organization of Belgian Jewry, said that Jewish schools and synagogues were closed on Friday and that the Jewish radio station in Brussels did not broadcast for the first time in 35 years.

“I think this is a big mistake,” Rabbi Gigi said in an interview with Israel Radio. “For all this time, despite all the problems that we had, we were proud that all the Jewish institutions were open and working. We were not deterred by events.”

“Today we closed synagogues and schools. This shows that there is fear,” he added. “It’s as if we’ve submitted to what’s happening.”

The attacks last week provoked alarm, not simply about terrorism but also about a wider range of issues relating to the balance between liberty and security, the limits of free speech and fears among European leaders of a surge in both anti-Semitism and Islamophobia.

Charlie Hebdo, whose staff took the heaviest casualties, is known for its readiness to lampoon the Prophet Muhammad in caricatures that many Muslims consider blasphemous. Its first cover since the attack, indeed, featured a cartoon showing a weeping Muhammad holding a placard with the slogan that has become the token of support for the newspaper: “Je Suis Charlie,” or “I Am Charlie.”

Despite a vastly increased print run, the newspaper has been selling out at Paris newsstands and, in London, where a version was to be distributed on Friday, lines of people wanting to buy a copy formed before daybreak.

Such is the concern about a spike in anti-Muslim sentiments that the Muslim Council of Britain, seen as an anti-extremist organization, said it would hold interfaith prayer meetings on Friday — the Muslim holy day — with prayers to evoke the “beautiful qualities of patience, peace and tolerance of the Prophet Muhammad.”

The editorial director of Charlie Hebdo, Stéphane Charbonnier, who signed his drawings “Charb,” was buried on Friday in Pontoise, near Paris, where he lived as a child.

Several left-wing politicians including Pierre Laurent, the national secretary of the Communist Party, paid tribute to a man many called their “comrade.” The speeches were punctuated by the Communist anthem “The Internationale,” and “Amazing Grace,” performed by a bagpipe player. The guests at the funeral included several members of the French government, including the education minister, Najat Vallaud-Belkacem.

Correction: January 16, 2015
An earlier version of this article misidentified the French city where Prime Minister Manuel Valls spoke. It was Quimper, not Paris.