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Prosecutors: 6 arrested in Brussels attacks

Associated Press

Brussels — Authorities lowered Belgium’s terror-threat level by one notch on Thursday, although they said the situation remained grave and another attack is “likely and possible.”

The Islamic State group has trained at least 400 fighters to target Europe in deadly waves of attacks, deploying interlocking terror cells like the ones that struck Brussels and Paris with orders to choose the time, place and method for maximum chaos, officials have told the Associated Press.

The officials, including European and Iraqi intelligence officials and a French lawmaker who follows the jihadi networks, described camps in Syria, Iraq and possibly the former Soviet bloc where attackers are trained to target the West. Before being killed in a police raid, the ringleader of the Nov. 13 Paris attacks claimed he had entered Europe in a multinational group of 90 fighters, who scattered “more or less everywhere.”

The officials’ warning came as Belgian prosecutors said six people have been detained in raids around Brussels linked to this week’s attacks. Federal prosecutors said in a statement late Thursday that the arrests were made during raids in central Brussels.

Meanwhile, French authorities arrested a man in the “advanced stages” of a plot to attack the country. But Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said there were no links “at this stage” between the plan and the attacks in Paris or Brussels.

Conversely, one of the men who carried out the Brussels suicide bombings had been wanted by police in connection with the Paris attacks, Belgian prosecutors said.

An international arrest warrant had been issued for Khalid El Bakraoui on Dec. 11, amid suspicions that he had used a false identity to rent a hideout allegedly used by the Paris terrorists in the southern Belgian city of Charleroi.

El Bakraoui, 27, died on Tuesday while helping carry out a suicide bombing at a central Brussels subway station. His brother, 29-year-old Ibrahim El Bakraoui, was one of two suicide bombers who died in an earlier attack at Brussels Airport.

Premier backs ministers

On Thursday, Belgium’s interior minister and justice minister tried to resign ahead of an emergency meeting of European security chiefs held amid growing questions about why authorities couldn’t prevent deadly Islamic extremist attacks on Brussels despite increasing signs of a threat.

Prosecutors announced a direct connection between the Brussels bombings and last year’s attacks on Paris, which appear to have been carried out by the same Islamic State network. The attacks have laid bare European security failings and prompted calls for better intelligence cooperation.

Interior Minister Jan Jambon said after a government meeting Thursday that “if you put all things in a row, you can ask yourself major questions” about the government’s handling of the threat from Islamic extremists.

One notable question was raised by Turkey’s announcement that it had warned Belgium last year that one of the Brussels attackers had been flagged as a “foreign terrorist fighter.”

But the prime minister asked Jambon and Justice Minister Koen Geens to stay on, given the current challenge the government is facing.

“The danger has not gone away,” said Paul Van Tigchelt, the head of the terror assessment authority.

The meeting came as Belgian and French media reported a second attacker is suspected of taking part in the bombing this week of a Brussels subway train and may be at large.

Belgian prosecutors have said at least four people were involved in Tuesday’s attacks on the Brussels airport and a subway train, including brothers Ibrahim and Khalid El Bakraoui, identified as suicide bombers. European security officials identified another suicide bomber as Najim Laachraoui, a suspected bombmaker for the Paris attacks.

Khalid El Bakraoui blew himself up on the train, while Ibrahim El Bakraoui and Laachraoui died in the airport.

Danger still possible

Prosecutors have said another suspected participant in the airport attack is at large, a man in a hat seen in surveillance images who has not been publicly identified.

Belgian state broadcaster RTBF and France’s Le Monde and BFM television reported Thursday that a fifth attacker may also be at large: a man filmed by surveillance cameras in the Brussels metro on Tuesday carrying a large bag alongside Khalid El Bakraoui.

It is not clear whether that man was killed in the attack.

The federal prosecutors’ office issued a statement Thursday saying that Khalid El Bakraoui had rented a house used as a hideout for the Paris attackers, and that he had been hunted by police since December.

Several of the Paris attackers were Belgian or had links to Belgium, and the country has been on high alert for possible attacks.

Turkey’s president said Wednesday that Ibrahim El Bakraoui was caught in June 2015 near Turkey’s border with Syria and deported to the Netherlands, with Ankara warning Dutch and Belgian officials that he was a “foreign terrorist fighter.” Turkish officials said he was later released from Dutch custody due to lack of evidence of involvement in extremism.

The Dutch justice minister has confirmed that one of the Brussels suicide bombers was flown from Turkey to Amsterdam in July, but says that authorities weren’t told why and had no reason to detain him.

In a letter to parliament, Justice Minister Ard van der Steur said Thursday that Ibrahim El Bakraoui was put on a plane from Istanbul to the Dutch capital on July 14, but that Turkish officials didn’t say why and his name wasn’t flagged in any Dutch law enforcement databases.

Van der Steur says that El Bakraoui had a valid Belgian passport when he arrived in Amsterdam “so there was no reason to take any action.”

Also Thursday, the chief suspect in the Paris attacks, Salah Abdeslam, was summoned to court in Brussels after his arrest last week in the Belgian capital. His lawyer, who had initially vowed to fight extradition, said Abdeslam now wants to be sent to France as soon as possible.

Trained to attack Europe

The Islamic State group’s network of agile and semi-autonomous cells shows the reach of the extremist group in Europe even as it loses ground in Syria and Iraq.

Estimates range from 400 to 600 Islamic State fighters trained specifically for external attacks, according to officials, including French Senator Nathalie Goulet, co-head of a commission tracking jihadi networks. Some 5,000 Europeans have gone to Syria.

“The reality is that if we knew exactly how many there were, it wouldn’t be happening,” Goulet said.

In the case of Tuesday’s attacks, Abdeslam’s arrest may have been a trigger for a plot that was already far along.

“To pull off an attack of this sophistication, you need training, planning, materials and a landscape,” said Shiraz Maher, a senior research fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at Kings College in London, which has one of the largest databases of fighters and their networks.