Belgium Arrests 15 Over Foiled Plot to 'Kill Police'

A Belgian special forces police blocks a street in central Verviers, a town between Liege and the German border, in the east of Belgium January 15, 2015. Stringer/Reuters

Belgian investigators said a plot to murder police officers across the country had been foiled "within hours or days" of being launched by raids in which two Islamist gunmen were killed.

Fifteen suspects were in custody on Friday, they said, after a dozen raids around Brussels and in Verviers, the eastern town where two men believed to have fought in Syria were shot dead on Thursday after opening fire on police with assault weapons.

Two of those under arrest were seized in France, but state prosecutors said they still had no evidence of a link between the Belgians and Islamists who killed 17 people in Paris last week at a Jewish store and satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo.

With security tightened across Europe, and other arrests in France and also in Germany on Friday, a man with a military weapon took hostages at post office near Paris. The incident, which ended with his surrender, unfolded after Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in the city to offer U.S. solidarity in combating militants.

In Belgium, Prime Minister Charles Michel urged people not to panic, saying authorities believed their actions had thwarted any imminent attack. Home to half a million Muslims, or five percent of the population, Belgium believes some 300 citizens have fought in Syria - the highest rate per head in Europe.

Security was tight at public buildings in the capital and at police stations. The army provided 150 troops to bolster police, who were instructed not to patrol alone. At the Verviers apartment where the two still unidentified gunmen died, security forces found police uniforms as well as four AK-47 rifles.

Officials declined comment on reports of threats to behead a policeman but said the targets were all over the country.

"This group was on the point of carrying out terrorist attacks aiming to kill police officers in the streets and in police stations," state prosecutor Eric Van Der Sypt told a news conference. They were set to act "in the next hours or days".


Of the 15 people detained, one had been with the dead gunmen in Verviers, a struggling textile town near the German border, and two were held in France at Belgium's request. The other 12 were seized around Brussels, most in the Molenbeek quarter, home to many poor descendants of North African immigrants.

A government plan to combat radicalization and violence by those returning from Syria includes a move to strip those coming back of travel documents, as well as measures to improve intelligence and persuade people to forsake militant groups.

In Verviers, Muslims attending Friday weekly prayers distanced themselves from militants but had few ideas of how to combat the radicalization of disenchanted young men.

"Who can defend against this? Who can defend against youngsters who in some weeks, some months become radicalized?" asked local mosque imam Franck Hensch. "The Internet is the main source of radicalization ... How can we act? Sadly, I don't have a solution and I don't think the authorities have one either."

Belgian officials say their investigation into the group began several weeks ago, before the Charlie Hebdo bloodshed, and they believe the cell was acting without international links.

Separately, Belgian investigators have been interrogating a man suspected of supplying weapons to Amedy Coulibaly, the Frenchman who killed hostages last week at the Jewish grocery.

A former Belgian counter-terrorism chief told RTBF radio that the Paris attacks may have accelerated the timing of the arrests: "Paris may have speeded things up," said Andre Jacob.

"Some information that may have been barely 'ripe' has been acted on quicker than planned ... because the threat was real."

Belgium has seen Islamist violence before. A Frenchman of Algerian origin faces trial there, accused of shooting dead four people at the Jewish Museum in Brussels last May.

A court in Antwerp is due to rule on 46 people accused of recruiting fighters for Syria. It was to have given its verdict this week but delayed it for a month after the Paris violence.

Editor's pick

Newsweek cover
  • Newsweek magazine delivered to your door
  • Unlimited access to
  • Ad free experience
  • iOS and Android app access
  • All newsletters + podcasts
Newsweek cover
  • Unlimited access to
  • Ad free experience
  • iOS and Android app access
  • All newsletters + podcasts