French, German and Belgian police arrested more than two dozen suspects in anti-terrorism raids Friday, as European authorities rushed to thwart more attacks by people with links to Mideast Islamic extremists.
Rob Wainwright, head of the police agency Europol, told The Associated Press that foiling terror attacks has become “extremely difficult” because Europe’s 2,500-5,000 radicalized Muslim extremists have little command structure and are increasingly sophisticated.
One of those Paris attackers had proclaimed allegiance to the Islamic State group, and French and German authorities arrested at least 14 other people Friday suspected of links to IS.
Thirteen more people were detained in Belgium and two were arrested in France in a separate anti-terror sweep following a firefight Thursday in the eastern Belgian city of Verviers. Two suspected terrorists were killed and a third wounded in that raid on a suspected terrorist hideout. Federal magistrate Eric Van der Sypt said Friday the suspects were within hours of implementing a plan to kill police, either on the street or in their offices.
In more than a dozen raids Friday, Belgian forces found four military-style weapons including Kalashnikov assault rifles, Van der Sypt said. They also found several police uniforms, which could have allowed the suspects to pass themselves off as police officers.
Belgian officials were reasonably confident they dismantled the core of an important terrorist cell but Van der Sypt said more suspects could be at large.
Authorities did not give many details about those detained or killed in Belgium but said most were citizens and some had returned from Syria. They stressed that the targets of their crackdown had no known connections to last week’s attacks in France.
Belgium has seen a large number of residents join extremists in Syria.
“It’s the worst affected country in Europe relative to population size,” said Peter Neumann of the London-based International Center for the Study of Radicalization. He estimates 450 people have left Belgium to fight with Islamic radicals in Syria and that 150 of them have returned home.
In Berlin, police arrested two men Friday morning on suspicion of recruiting fighters for the Islamic State group in Syria. Prosecutors said 250 police officers raided 11 residences at dawn, part of a months-old investigation into Turkish extremists.