Multiple recent arrests suggest a wider Islamic State presence in Europe than previously thought
Police stand guard during a raid last week in the Brussels neighborhood of Schaerbeek, home to two safe houses allegedly used by the network behind the attacks in Brussels and Paris. — PHOTO: ALASTAIR GRANT/ASSOCIATED PRESS
A pan-European effort to crack the Islamic State network behind the Paris and Brussels attacks is yielding an unsettling discovery—a web of interlocking terror cells whose dimensions authorities say they are still trying to grasp.
European authorities said they suspect that several men detained in a number of countries over the Easter weekend all had connections to perpetrators of the deadly attacks. This has prompted French and Belgian prosecutors to seek closer U.S. assistance, according to Western officials, as they try to map the extent of the network responsible for killing 130 people in Paris in November and at least 31 in Brussels on Tuesday.
The immediate effort is centering on Fayçal Cheffou, a Brussels resident of Moroccan origin who was detained in front of the office of Belgium’s federal prosecutor Thursday as police were trailing him by car. Belgian authorities say they suspect Mr. Cheffou, who has been charged and is in custody, is the man seen pushing a cart on security footage captured at Brussels Airport minutes before two suicide bombers detonated their explosives.
Recent police raids have turned up more men allegedly linked to the Paris and Brussels attackers, which in turn have led authorities to other suspects. One man apprehended in Italy on Sunday is suspected of having supplied several suspected attackers with fake documents. Three other men detained last week, one near Paris and two in Brussels, also had links to the attackers, and were allegedly plotting a terror act in France.
That led Sunday to the detention of a 32-year-old Frenchman in Rotterdam, who also is suspected of being involved in the foiled French plot, according to French and Dutch officials.
The string of arrests, which come on top of multiple other detentions in recent months, suggests the terror networks being pursued by European authorities spread beyond Paris and Brussels.
“We know there are other networks,” France’s President François Hollande said last week. “Even if the network which conducted attacks in Paris and Brussels is about to be neutralized, there is always a threat hanging.”
Failure to dismantle the Islamic State network before it could strike in Paris and Brussels has been particularly vexing for Belgian authorities, who identified one of the group’s senior operatives—the suspected ringleader of November’s Paris attacks, Abdelhamid Abaaoud—long before either incident. In January 2015, they killed two of his alleged associates in a police raid, while Mr. Abaaoud is believed to have escaped to Syria before slipping back into Europe sometime before the November attack in Paris. He was killed in a French raid a few days after the Paris attacks.