Extremist cell behind attacks in Brussels and Paris is being 'annihilated'
Punctuated with gunfire and explosions, a new series of anti-terrorism raids unfolded Friday in the Belgian capital as the French president declared that the extremist cell behind Tuesday’s bombings in Brussels and the attacks last November in Paris was being “annihilated.”
The raids here came as French and German authorities swooped down on suspects as part of a European crackdown on possible terrorist networks.
The police actions Friday included a major offensive in central Brussels, where authorities detained three more people near an apartment that the attackers in Tuesday’s airport bombings had used as a safe house and possibly a bomb-making hub.
Two of the people swept up in the raids were shot, both in the legs. One of them was sitting on a tram bench with a suspicious bag and accompanied by a young girl.
The sprawling, mostly middle-class Schaerbeek district has been the focus of police activity since the bombings at the city airport and a subway platform that left 31 dead and hundreds injured. Authorities confirmed Friday that at least two U.S. citizens were among those killed.
In Paris, French President Francois Hollande declared that the cell believed to have been behind both the Brussels attacks and last November’s strikes in the French capital “was being annihilated.” But he warned that other extremist gangs could be plotting attacks against European targets.
“We do, however, know that that there are other networks that continue to pose a serious threat,” Hollande said.
A group of Belgian and French citizens of Moroccan origin are believed to have composed most of the cell that carried out Tuesday’s bombings in Brussels and last November’s attacks that left 130 dead in Paris. Some of the assailants had traveled to Syria and joined Islamic State, the Al Qaeda offshoot that has taken credit for the strikes on Brussels and Paris.
As anti-terrorist police were fanning out across the city, Secretary of State John F. Kerry arrived Friday in rainy Brussels and said that Islamic State’s self-declared “caliphate” in Syria and neighboring Iraq was collapsing under intense military pressure, including separate U.S. and Russian bombardment campaigns.
"We will not be intimidated, we will not be deterred," Kerry said, addressing the militant group directly. "And we will come back with greater resolve and greater strength, and we will not rest until we have eliminated your nihilistic beliefs and cowardice from the face of this earth.”
Kerry's remarks came as U.S. officials reported that special operations forces had killed the second-in-command of Islamic State during a raid in Syria.
Also in Syria, the state media reported that government troops, backed by Russian airpower, were closing in on the city of Palmyra, home to magnificent Roman-era ruins. Militants overran the city last May and destroyed some ancient monuments.
Meanwhile, in Germany, two terrorist suspects were arrested in separate raids Thursday, including one on suspicion of “planning a major act of violence against the state,” authorities said.
One of those arrested had been expelled from Turkey last summer for alleged terrorism ties along with Ibrahim El Bakraoui, one of the suicide attackers in Brussels, reported Der Spiegel magazine. Whether the suspect arrested in Germany had any links to the Belgium attacks was not clear.
Also Friday, European media reported that a fugitive arrested outside Paris on Thursday and suspected of plotting an imminent terrorist attack had been convicted Belgium last July of being part of a vast European recruitment network for Islamic State.
Police had been hunting for the militant recruiter, Reda Kriket, 34, a French national. Last year, Kriket was sentenced in absentia in Belgium to a 10-year prison term, according to media accounts.
Also convicted in absentia in that July 2015 decision in Belgium was Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the Belgian-Moroccan accused ringleader of the Nov. 13 attacks in Paris. Abaaoud, who was killed in a shootout with French police following the Paris strikes, received a 20-year sentence.
In Paris, Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said the man later identified as Kriket was "suspected of being involved in this project at a high level and was at the heart of a terrorist network that was planning to hit France."
But the French interior minister told a news conference that there was "at this stage no tangible evidence" to link the foiled plot in France with this week’s bombings in Brussels and November’s strikes in Paris.
It remained unclear if any those arrested in recent days in Belgium was suspected of being the fugitive accomplice of the two suicide bombers who struck the Brussels airport.
The as-yet publicly unidentified fugitive wearing a hat and tan jacket was seen in closed-circuit footage at the airport before the explosions. He and two other men — both identified as suicide bombers who died at the scene — were seen pushing luggage carts.
Authorities have also not said whether any of those arrested in recent days was a suspected accomplice in the Brussels metro bombing. One suicide attacker was confirmed killed in the metro blast, but reports have suggested that a confederate may have also been involved.
While Belgian authorities have not yet released the nationalities or identities of those killed in the two blasts, two victims were identified as Dutch nationals who had been living in New York City for some time, Alexander and Sascha Pinczowski.
"This morning, New Yorkers were saddened to learn that two of our own, Sascha and Alexander Pinczowski, lost their lives in Tuesday's senseless terror attacks in Brussels," New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said in a statement about the brother and sister.
"Their lives were cut short by cowards who have chosen extremism and hate instead of peace and unity," Cuomo added. "On behalf of all New Yorkers, I extend our deepest prayers and condolences to the Pinczowski family, as well as all those who lost loved ones in Tuesday's heartbreaking attacks."
On Thursday, Mark Toner, a State Department spokesman, had told reporters in Washington that an undetermined number of U.S. citizens remained unaccounted for after the attacks. About a dozen Americans suffered nonfatal injuries in the bombings, the spokesman said.