Europe’s Most Wanted Man Eludes Massive Dragnet

VOA

Jamie Dettmer

Suspected Paris attacker Salah Abdeslam evaded a massive manhunt Sunday night involving raids in Brussels and its suburbs, but security forces Monday were also focusing on towns in eastern Belgium, suggesting police fear Europe’s most wanted man might be trying to flee to neighboring Germany.

On the third day of an unprecedented lockdown of the Belgian capital, officials here remain tight-lipped about the biggest security operation mounted in the country since World War II.

Paris Assailants, Suspects

Status: Still at large

Name: Salah Abdeslam
Background: French national born in Belgium
Investigation: Considered eighth attacker; believed to be driver of car outside the Bataclan

On Sunday night, 16 suspects were arrested in more than 19 raids in Brussels and outlying towns to the east and south of Belgium’s capital, which is also home to the main European Union institutions. One of the suspects, who was not named, has been charged in connection with the Paris attacks while 15 others were released.  Belgian security officials admitted to VOA they don’t believe they have yet rolled up a terror network they say is planning to mount more attacks similar to those that struck Paris November 13 and left 130 people dead and more than 350 injured.

Belgian media outlets said police arrested four people late Saturday, one possibly wearing a suicide belt.  But Geert Schoorens of the federal prosecutor’s office said later he could “neither deny nor confirm” the reports.   Authorities addressing reporters Monday did not reference those reports.

Meanwhile, Moroccan authorities say Belgium has formally requested help in tracking a key suspect in the Paris massacres, as Brussels remains on lockdown and police there press forward with a massive search for terror suspects.

A statement from Rabat said Belgium’s King Philippe asked Moroccan King Mohammed for close and intense cooperation in the hunt for Salah Abdeslam, who has avoided arrest since crossing into Belgium from Paris hours after the November 13 attacks.

A Moroccan tip last week helped lead French police to an apartment in north Paris where another suspect, massacre architect Abdelhamid Abaaoud, was killed in a November 18 raid.

Elsewhere, police in the southern Paris suburb of Montrouge on Monday were analyzing an apparent suicide explosives belt found in a trash bin.  A French police official quoted by the Associated Press said preliminary analysis of the vest, which lacked a detonator, showed traces of TATP, an explosive used in the Paris attacks which killed at least 130 people.  The belt, containing bolts, was found in the same area as a cell phone belonging to the fugitive Abdeslam, who was seen in the area the night of the attacks.

Late Monday, the U.S. State Department issued a worldwide travel alert, warning Americans that Islamic State extremists and other terror organizations continue planning attacks “in multiple regions.”  The advisory cited recent attacks in Denmark, France, Mali, Nigeria and Turkey, and urged “particular caution” during the upcoming holiday season.

Spotted near German border

Counter-terror units were active Monday in Liège, Belgium, apparently chasing tips that Abdeslam was spotted in a BMW there. Liege is less than a half hour’s drive from the German border and close to the Belgian town of Verviers, where in January Belgian police units were involved in a gunfight with jihadists. A local media outlet reported that the 26-year-old Frenchman and former petty criminal managed to break through a police cordon near Liège, but officials refused to confirm or deny the claim.

If true, the escape from police clutches near Liège would be the second time Abdeslam has been close to capture. Just hours after the Paris attacks, Abdeslam was stopped by French police near the border with Belgium in a car with two other men and was questioned but let go. At the time, his involvement in the attacks was not known, so there was no alert out on him.

Belgian security sources told VOA they believe Abdeslam is receiving help from jihadist networks to evade capture, despite the fact that the fugitive told friends in Skype conversations, according to an ABC News report two days ago, that the Islamic State was unhappy with him after he failed to detonate his suicide vest. They said he was still desperate to get to IS territory in Syria.

“Intensive border security measures are in place and have been since the Paris attacks,” a German police spokesman told VOA.

Already under a barrage of criticism in Belgium and overseas for intelligence fumbles leading up to the Paris attacks, the country’s counterterrorist agencies appear desperate to shore up confidence in their competence. But the failure to locate Abdeslam is adding to obvious public anxiety.

Eric van der Sypt, Belgium’s public prosecutor, said at a news conference early Monday that a judge would review the detentions of the 16 people arrested on Sunday and a further four detained Saturday night.

All the raids in Brussels and the towns Anderlecht and Charleroi were conducted without incident. But in the Brussels suburb of Molenbeek, where Abdeslam and several of the Paris attackers lived, a car drove directly at security forces, prompting police to open fire. The driver was injured.

Speaking on Belgian television Sunday, Interior Minister Jan Jambon cautioned that the emergency would not be over if and when Abdeslam is found.

“It is a threat that goes beyond just that one person,” he said. “We’re looking at more things. That’s why we’ve put in place such a concentration of resources.”

As the country’s security services intensified their search for a network of Islamic militants believed to be planning a series of attacks on targets in Brussels, many workers stayed at home Monday and businesses closed. Soldiers patrolled streets in the center of Brussels and armored vehicles were deployed outside main stations and in major public spaces.

Authorities indicated at least two militants were at large in the Brussels area who “could commit very dangerous acts.” Some security sources put the figure at closer to eight.

Transport remained severely restricted, with the city’s metro system still suspended and schools shuttered. On Grand Place, the city’s historic central square normally full of tourists and locals, an armored vehicle was parked close to a Christmas tree.

EU institutions were open Monday but with armed troops mounting patrols — many staff were working from home. NATO said its headquarters in the city were open, but some staff were also asked to work from home.

Belgian authorities have urged the public and media not to comment on social media sites about any ongoing police operations they are observing, saying that tweets and Instagram photographs could tip off suspects. Following the lead of a Dutch cameraman, many Belgians have started instead to post pictures of their cats – a surreal expression of humor amid high public anxiety.

One Comment

  1. Gwendolyn says:

    If the purpose of terrorism is to terrify, the Islamic State had an extraordinary week. Brussels, capital of the EU and command post of mighty NATO, is still in panic and lockdown.

    “In Brussels, fear of attack lingers” was Monday’s headline over The Washington Post’s top story, which read:

    “Not since Boston came to a near-standstill after the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013 has the life of a major Western city been brought to a halt this way by the fear of terrorism.”

    Below that is this headline: “After Paris, a campaign changed by fear.”

    That story is about what’s happened in our presidential race: “Across the country … have come pronouncements of anger and fear not seen after the terrorist attacks in London and Madrid — or even in some ways after Sept. 11 2001.”

    Voters speak of “feeling more afraid of the Islamic State, more horrified by the imagery of the beheadings and other atrocities.”

    The New York Times’ Roger Cohen describes the Paris he loves.

    “[T]hey are shaken. There is a void in the streets too empty, a new suspicion in appraising glances, a wary numbness. Paris is afflicted with absences — the dead, of course; visitors frightened away; minds frozen by fear; and tranquility lost. The city feels vulnerable.”

    “I think France is attacked above all for what it is,” writes Cohen, “That in turn is terrifying. … I don’t think Paris has ever felt so precious or precarious to me as it did over the past week.”

    Terrible as the massacres were, some perspective is in order.

    What happened on Friday the 13th is that nine fanatics of the Islamic State, using suicide vests and AK-47s, slaughtered people at restaurants, a soccer stadium and in a concert hall.

    The death toll of 130 is being called the “worst attack on French soil since World War II.”

    Yet, from August 1914 to November of 1918, World War I, 850 French died every day for 51 months, a total of 1.3 million in four years in a country not nearly so populous as France is today.

    On Aug. 22, 1914, some 27,000 French soldiers died resisting the German invasion. Yet France survived to dictate terms to Berlin.

    But that France was another country than today’s.

    In our own Civil War, in a country one-tenth as populous as today, 400 Americans, North and South, died every day for four years.

    The point of this recital is not to minimize the horror in Paris.

    But it is to suggest that when Jeb Bush calls the attack on Paris “an organized effort to destroy western civilization,” he is ascribing to our enemies in ISIS powers they do not remotely possess.

    Indeed, the terror, fear, panic and paralysis exhibited today is in ways more alarming than the massacre itself. Russia lost twice as many people on that airliner blown up over Sinai as died in France. But Russia and Vladimir Putin do not appear to be terrorized.

    Every week in Iraq, terrorists claim as many lives as were lost in France. In Syria’s civil war, 250,000 have died. This translates into more dead every day for four years than died in Paris on Nov. 13.

    What has happened to a West that once ruled the world?

    By any measure — military, economic, scientific — the Islamic State, compared to the West, is a joke.

    What the Islamists do have, however, is this: If they can reach the West and are willing to give up their lives, and can learn how to fire an AK-47 or construct a suicide vest, they can terrify the peoples of the West by slaughtering dozens or scores of them.

    For 10 days, ISIS killers have dominated world news, television, print and social media. So doing, they have engendered a real fear in the heart of Western man.

    The strength of ISIS, of the Islamist militants, of those willing to die driving the “Crusaders” out of their lands, beheading infidels, imposing sharia, attacking the West, lies in an emptiness in the soul of Western Man.

    Many Europeans are the “hollow men” of T. S. Eliot’s depiction.

    They have repudiated their cradle faith Christianity, apologized for the sins of their fathers and sought to make reparations, embraced La Dolce Vita, materialism and hedonism, freeloaded off U.S. defense for 70 years, ceased to have children, thrown open their borders to former colonial peoples to come and repopulate the continent, and turned their back on patriotism to celebrate diversity and globalism.

    They invited the world in. And the world is coming to enjoy the lavish fruits of their welfare states and, one day, will be using the West’s concept of one-man, one-vote to rule the countries that ruled their ancestors.

    The colonized are slowly becoming the conquerors.

    The challenge of ISIS is not entirely unhealthy. It will tell us whether Europe has the will to survive.

    As for Paris, time to move on. For, given the triumph this has been for ISIS, more such massacres are inevitable.

    Reply

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