The Flemish Daily De Standaard explains today that the fourteen suspects who were arrested — and subsequently released — may still pose a threat:- - - - - - - - -BRUSSELS — Security services remain convinced that the fourteen Muslim extremists who were detained on Friday 21 December, and were subsequently released, had nefarious intentions.
[There will be] no fireworks in Brussels tonight; the Christmas market and the skating rink will close early. These are the newest anti-terror measures taken yesterday, after a meeting of the Home Affairs, Urban Policy, Housing and Civic Integration Ministry’s crisis cell and an evaluation of the terror threat. In addition to these measures, at least until 3 January, extra security will remain in place in the Brussels metro and train stations, the airport, and in places where large numbers of people are present such as the Grote Markt [“Grand Place” — the main market square; it is ringed by medieval guild houses and is one of the main tourist attractions in the city].
Not surprisingly, apart from some purely political objections some lawmakers also question the validity of the threat perception:Senator Jean-Marie Dedecker (LDD) [Lijst Dedecker - a small pro-Flemish party] called the measures ‘a Christmas show by the interim Government that will cost our country a fortune.’ His colleague Anne-Marie Lizin (PS) [Parti Socialiste - Walloon Socialists] requested an investigation into the quality of the information that led to what she considers to be an overestimation of the terror alert. Both parliamentarians consider the best proof of their position to be the fact that the fourteen suspects who were detained on 21 December were released that same evening.
Note that their argument basically follows the “terrorism as crime” paradigm, which should have been abandoned after 9-11. In this view, absence of evidence is evidence of absence (of a crime). The crisis cell, however, is not buying it. The cell does not disclose specific intelligence, but it explains its nature:[The cell] bases its position on the analyses of OCAD. This information-sharing forum has been in existence for about one and a half years and comprises all federal security and intelligence services involved with combating terrorism. None of those involved have been willing to divulge anything regarding the specific indicators [on the terror plot] they possess. They only state that ‘We received information from several independent sources - both domestic and foreign - that Muslim extremists wanted to free Nizar Trabelsi from jail and that they wanted to execute a terror attack somewhere in Brussels, in a crowded place’.
The fact that the cell came to its conclusion based on independently sourced information shows that their conclusion was likely no mistake. The mention of “foreign” sources possibly refers to a foreign security or intelligence service, which would make the assessment even more solid. While the editors consider the possibility that it could always have been a case of innocent boasting, they continue to deconstruct that argument:According to our [the newspaper’s] information, at first the suspects only talked about freeing Trabelsi. That changed midway through December. Suddenly the talk was about a ‘blind’ attack. At that point, the Judiciary obviously went into overdrive.”
What is certain is that these past few weeks [i.e., after their release] the fourteen suspects […] have been acting very suspiciously in phone and mail communications. All fourteen belonged to Nizar Trabelsi’s entourage. Trabelsi is serving a ten-year sentence in our country because he planned to execute an attack with a car bomb. Among the fourteen is also Ahmed Temsamani, robber and ex-cellmate of Trabelsi’s, as well as two other detainees. Naïma, Trabelsi’s second wife, also belonged to the fourteen. She was also detained on 21 December, together with two of her majority-aged children. One of those is a chemist. She can make a bomb’, Naïma said on the phone several times. ‘I was just making a joke’, Naïma says now.
In other phone conversations the suspects made other ‘jokes’ as well. Naïma’s majority-aged son talked to his stepfather Nizar Trabelsi about becoming a kamikaze. In still other phone conversations, the suspects mentioned a ‘reconnaissance’ they would conduct in the metro. ‘We will surreptitiously hide some tins in the trash cans. Then they [security] will take action and we will know if we’re being followed’, they said.
These people, who are part of the inner circle of a man who is already in jail for planning a car bomb attack, are talking about making bombs and conducting reconnaissance. Even if they are legally still “untouchable”, from a purely preventive standpoint there is definitely enough here to merit close scrutiny. Finally, here’s a surprising semi-endorsement of the threat perception:
The police and Judiciary received support from a non-suspect source. Malika El Aroud, one of the fourteen [suspects], reacted to the police action the day after her release on the internet forum www.forumbismillah.com. Malika is the widow of Abdessatar Dahmane, the man who, in a suicide attack, killed Afghan opposition leader Ahmed Shah Massoud the day before 9-11.
[On the forum, she writes:] ‘It may surprise you but for once, I believe the police were right to act. One of the detained persons has told me over the phone several times that there would be a violent hostage-taking if Nizar Trabelsi’s prison regimen was not relaxed. Obviously [?] she was just talking trash. But is it really a surprise that the police react to that?’
Apparently Mayor Thielemans decided to take the security precautions following a phone call from Patrick Dewael, Minister for Home Affairs, Urban Policy, Housing and Civic Integration. I don’t think either one would have let anyone publicly impugn their new electorate by implying that Muslims were planning a terror attack. The threat may never materialize now that extra security is in place and people are (indirectly) discouraged from attending crowded events, and undoubtedly that will be seen in some quarters as proof that there never was a credible threat in the first place.
Still, it’s encouraging that the professionals charged with countering the terror threat seem to do their utmost, in the face of political skepticism and shackled by judicial constraints meant for criminal cases.
VH, our other Flemish correspondent, adds this:
Fresh news: In Rotterdam the Special Intervention Team arrested two Moroccans and a Sudanese. The suspects were planning an attack. Its not clear yet if there is a connection with the planned subway attack in Brussels.
About the Rotterdam arrests nothing further is known yet, only that five houses have been searched and that the attack was expected to happen very soon.
As a contrast, there will be New Year’s Fireworks on the Finnish tundra — a special kind of fireworks…