At approximately 1745 local time on 15 January, Belgian counter-terrorism police conducted a raid on a building in the residential area of Hill in the town of Verviers, prompting an intense exchange of gunfire with suspected Islamist militants in the building that lasted almost 10 minutes. Two of the suspects targeted in the raid were killed in the firefight while a third was wounded and detained. No other casualties were reported.
Speaking shortly after the incident, Prosecutor Eric Van der Sypt stated that the raid targeted a militant cell that was planning an “imminent” and “large-scale” attack, possibly against police buildings. Prosecutors stated on 16 January that four AK-series assault rifles, bomb-making equipment, police uniforms, communications equipment, and a large sum of money had been recovered during the raid. “This was… an operation looking into an operational cell made up of people, some of whom [were] coming back from Syria,” Van der Sypt stated. Several Belgian media reports after the raid claimed that some of the suspects had been under surveillance after returning from Syria the previous week.
In an interview with CNN on 15 January, an unnamed senior Belgian counter-terrorism official claimed that members of the cell had in fact received instructions from the Islamic State while in Syria. The official further claimed that their planned attack was intended to have been in “retaliation” for United States-led airstrikes in Syria and Iraq.
Meanwhile, at last nine other raids also took place in the Brussels region at the same time as the one in Verviers, with Van der Sypt confirming on 16 January that 13 people had been arrested in these operations. According to Belgian authorities, all the raids were linked to suspects who had returned from fighting in Syria. In addition, two suspected Islamist militants had been detained in Brussels earlier on 15 January, before the Verviers raid.
Belgium authorities confirmed that at the start of the Verviers operation “the suspects immediately and for several minutes opened fire with military weaponry and handguns… before they were neutralised”. The revelation that heavy weapons were used – later reported as AK-series assault rifles – came as Belgium newspaper Het Laatste Nieuws reported on 14 January that Amedy Coulibaly – one of the Islamist militants linked to the Charlie Hebdo and other attacks in France the previous week – had sourced the weapons used in the Paris attacks, including AK-series assault rifles and a rocket launcher, from the city of Brussels.
The report came a day after Belgian police arrested a man, described by AFP as a known weapons trafficker, who had been in contact with Coulibaly and his partner Hayat Boumedienne before the Paris attack. However, Van der Sypt stressed that at the time there was no established weapons link between the Verviers raid and the Paris attacks.
Nevertheless, although the investigation into the Verviers cell had been ongoing for several weeks, it seems probable that the Paris attacks helped to embolden and incentivise other Islamist militant cells and individuals, possibly leading to the ‘imminent’ nature of the threat and precipitating the Belgian authorities’ decision to switch from surveillance to launching the raid. Two suspected Islamist militants had been detained earlier on 15 January in Brussels, while further operations were launched in suburbs of Brussels, including Sint-Jans-Molenbeek, Anderlecht, and Schaerbeek, following the Verviers raid.
Although the alleged links between the three Verviers suspects and the Islamic State or other militant groups could not be verified immediately, given that authorities confirmed that some of the cell members had fought in Syria, they may have undergone training similar to that given to at least one of the assailants in the Charlie Hebdo attack or gained combat experience.
The Verviers raid highlighted the ongoing national security threat posed to Western nations by their citizens returning from fighting in Syria and Iraq with plans to launch attacks in their home countries, but the operation further highlighted the fact that such cells are more easily identified, tracked, and targeted by authorities, particularly in comparison with self-radicalised, self-starter militants.
Additional evidence of this was presented by a series of counter-terrorism raids by German police in the early morning of 16 January targeting 11 properties in Berlin, leading to the arrest of two people on suspicion of funding, recruiting, and supplying militant Islamist group the Islamic State. On 15 January, German prosecutors stated that a joint German-Tunisian national had been detained in Wolfsburg on suspicion of fighting for the Islamic State while in Syria between May and August 2014.
Given that hundreds of European nationals have been estimated by respective national security services to have travelled to Syria and Iraq for militant purposes, further such attack plots and counter-terrorism operations can be expected in Western Europe over the coming months. Although most, if not all, such returnees are probably identified, tracked, and surveilled by authorities, the sheer number of returnees may overstretch the capabilities of security forces to effectively monitor all suspects. This could then lead to a situation similar to that in France before the Paris attacks, where surveillance on known militants was ended after they were assessed to no longer be actively involved in militancy but may instead have been deliberately laying low and engaging in alternate activities in an attempt to lessen the attention of the authorities. With only finite resources and a large pool of potential suspects to monitor, it seems potentially unavoidable that some Syria returnees may choose to bide their time for an extended period, be deemed by the security services to not pose a sufficiently high risk or threat to warrant continued or ongoing surveillance, and thereafter launch an attack.