The trial of members of a terror cell in the eastern Belgian town of Verviers begins on Monday. But the men in the dock are not believed to be the ringleaders of the cell.
The head of the French police’s anti-terror unit has revealed a new and particularly alarming detail about a suspected extremist cell in the Belgian town of Verviers. “The terrorists’ idea was to kidnap a high-ranking Belgian representative and behead him live online,” Hubert Bonneau told the magazine Le Point.
Until now, Belgian officials had assumed that the cell’s primary targets were the police and a police station in the Brussels district of Molenbeek. However, new details have leaked since French police started working more closely with their Belgian counterparts.
On January 15, 2015, just one week after the fatal attacks on Charlie Hebdo and a Jewish supermarket in Paris, Belgian police pulled off a sensational coup. What was particularly spectacular about it was the intensity of the firefight between police and suspects in the small Walloon town of Verviers.
The attempt to storm a suspected terrorist hideout became an exchange of bullets so intense that the house on the Rue de la Colline caught fire. Simultaneously, police had to fight the fire and shoot at their human targets. At the end, two men were dead. A third, Marouane El Bali, was arrested shortly afterwards.
On Monday, El Bali will appear in court in Brussels along with six other defendants. He is currently remanded in custody along with the defendants Souhaib El Abdi, Mohamed Arshad and Mahmood Hajni. Three other suspects were released on parole.
The four principal defendants are standing trial on charges of forming a terror organization. The public prosecutor considers them the leaders of the so-called Verviers cell, along with Omar Damache, who was arrested in Athens around the same time.
The majority of the cell’s suspected members are not in court, however. They are believed to have disappeared. These suspects – two Belgians, five Frenchmen, a Moroccan and a Dutchman – are thought to be either fighting for “Islamic State” (IS) in Syria, already dead or in hiding.
Haven for terrorists?
The suspected IS fighter Abdelhamid Abaoud is not in the dock. He is thought to have rebuilt the cell after it was broken up following the manhunt in Verviers. Abaoud recruited logistics people and men prepared to die martyrs’ deaths – the men who attacked Paris on November 13. Once again it became apparent that there was a close connection between Belgian and French terror cells. Authorities believe that Belgium effectively served as a haven and a place to prepare the Paris attacks.
Abaoud’s associates in the Paris group are dead, apart from the sole survivor, Salah Abdeslam. The group’s members either blew themselves up or died a few days later in a hail of police bullets in the Paris district of St. Denis – where Albelhamid Abaoud himself was also killed. Abdeslam was the only one who did not detonate his explosive belt: He is presumed to have thrown it away.
He fled, heading home, where he was finally apprehended in Molenbeek in March. This was where the various threads connecting Verviers, Paris and Brussels, the suspected perpetrators and those believed to have helped them, all came together. Among them were several pairs of brothers, relatives and childhood friends, which explains why the group remained impenetrable by the police for so long.
Syria and Europe
On a tipoff from Belgium, Greek police arrested the Algerian Omar Damache in Athens on January 17, 2015. Abdelhamid Abaoud, however, escaped. He had been staying in the same apartment, keeping in touch with the Verviers group by cellphone.
In the apartment police also found a laptop that Abaoud had been using, which already contained indications that an attack on a large airport was being planned. That, of course, took place this March 22 in Brussels – another sign of close cooperation throughout the widespread network, as is the fact that Najim Laachraoui, who was involved in organizing the logistics of the Paris attacks, turned up again four months later in Brussels Airport as a suicide bomber.
Abdelhamid Abaoud, however, spent months last year traveling back and forth between Syria, Greece, Belgium and France, even boasting in IS publications that he had escaped the dragnet in Verviers. If Europe’s police and security services had worked together more efficiently at the time, perhaps they would have caught him earlier. As it is, the defendants now appearing in court in Brussels are probably just the second tier of the Franco-Belgian terrorist scene.