- Hundreds of radicalized people in nation, PM Michel says
- Reynders says Paris suspect was poised to `restart something'
Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel warned Sunday that the struggle against Islamic militants in the country doesn’t stop with the capture of suspected Paris attacker Salah Abdeslam.
He said there are hundreds more radicalized people in Belgium on a list compiled by risk analysis agency OCAM, which has maintained its ‘High’ threat level even after special forces ended a four-month man hunt for Abdeslam.
“We are faced with a new page of the history of Europe with real threats,” he told RTL TV. “There is a huge work for the secret intelligence services to foil terror attacks.”
Abdeslam, believed to be the sole surviving participant of the November massacre that left 130 people dead, was dubbed Europe’s most wanted man after going to ground in the days after the Paris assault. He sustained a wounded leg as special forces hauled him out of a bolt hole in his home neighborhood -- the immigrant-heavy Brussels suburb of Molenbeek, seen as a hot spot for Jihadists and routinely neglected by past governments.
The premier, facing criticism over his nation’s failure to catch Abdeslam sooner and inability to foil home-grown radicals, vowed to focus energy on countering terrorism in the Belgian capital.
“In the past some political parties have granted less attention to terrorism,” Michel said. “It’s a basic responsibility for the towns to know who is on its territory. For some towns this mission presents some difficulties. I want to focus all my energy on how we can improve the situation in Molenbeek.”
Michel’s comments came after a frantic weekend punctuated by a legal clash over the extradition of Abdeslam, 26, to face justice in France. While the Belgian government has backed the request, the terror suspect’s lawyer Sven Mary has said he’ll oppose the French extradition demand and told reporters on Sunday that he’ll file a complaint over comments by Paris prosecutor Francois Molins.
Molins said Abdeslam told authorities that he planned to blow himself up during the Paris attacks before changing his mind. This was a violation of privacy, Mary told Le Soir newspaper.
Molins said Saturday that legal maneuvers could only delay the handover by three months at the most. He declined to say how Abdeslam was tracked down, saying it’s up to the Belgian authorities. Cooperation between French and Belgian police forces was “exemplary,” he said.
Mary said Saturday that his client, now in a high-security prison in the city of Bruges, is cooperating with Belgian authorities and seeking to put off a transfer to France.
“There is, first, a case in Belgium that needs to be dealt with,” Mary said, after meetings with an investigating judge. Abdeslam “has to explain himself, and his extradition could be suspended while waiting for development of the investigation in Belgium.”
Abdeslam was formally accused of participation in a terrorist assassination and of participation in the activities of a terrorist organization, according to Belgian federal prosecutors.
A Brussels court will decide on March 23 whether to extend a Belgian arrest warrant issued on Saturday, he said. A decision on the European warrant, which could pave the way for extradition, will be made within 15 days, he said.
Abdeslam has acknowledged he was in Paris at the time of the November attacks, Mary said. Three teams of men linked to Islamic State blew themselves up outside a stadium, fired at restaurant and cafe patrons, and shot members of the audience at the Bataclan concert hall on Nov. 13.
Molins gave further details about Abdeslam’s role. In the run-up to the attacks, starting in July, Abdeslam also made at least four car trips to the Balkans, via both Italy and Hungary, presumably to bring militants to Belgium and France, Molins said. He rented safe houses used to prepare for the attacks, and bought triggers and chemicals used to make explosive belts, the prosecutor said.
U.S. President Barack Obama was briefed on the raid by his counter-terrorism adviser, Lisa Monaco, and spoke by telephone with Michel and French President Francois Hollande to congratulate them on the capture, according to the White House.
‘Extremely High’ Risk
Still, French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said the terror threat remains “extremely high” despite a series of arrests since the Paris attacks and “intense” operations by police to dismantle networks used for recruitment. The nation will further increase the number of police who are armed to help fight terrorism, he said.
Belgian prosecutor Frederic Van Leeuw echoed the warnings, saying on RTL TV that the end of the hunt for Abdeslam shouldn’t be greeted by “triumphalism.”
Friday’s breakthrough followed an earlier raid in the Brussels borough of Forest on March 15, where Abdeslam’s fingerprints had been discovered.
Belgian authorities identified a suspect killed as Mohamed Belkaid, a 35-year-old Algerian national residing in the country illegally. His body was found with a Kalashnikov rifle next to it, with ammunition magazines and shell casings in the apartment. An Islamic State flag and book about radical Islam were found in the residence, the prosecutors said.
Belgian Foreign Minister Didier Reynders said at a conference on Sunday that information gleaned following Abdeslam’s capture indicated “that he was ready to restart something from Brussels.”
This “may be the reality,” he said, because “we have found a lot of heavy weapons in the first investigations and we have seen a new network of people around him in Brussels.”