A planned terror strike in Europe that Belgian police claim to have foiled on Thursday was linked to al-Qaeda, authorities say. Some of the 14 suspects arrested had recently traveled to Pakistan and Afghanistan, officials said, and had planned to launch a suicide strike although the target remains unknown. "When you have people returning from Afghanistan, as most of these people had, they're sufficiently hard-core that the question isn't whether they'll be undertaking plotting activity but when, and in what form," said a European counterterrorism official with knowledge of the case. "What's important for us to learn is, if the Taliban or their al-Qaeda allies decide to strike us today, who are they going to do it with: their old European networks, [or] via Pakistani groups, jihadist organizations in North Africa or maybe other operatives? The situation evolves constantly, and we've got to keep up with it." (See TIME's top 10 crime stories of 2008.)
Thursday's raids were carried out in Brussels and the eastern city of Liege, where police confiscated computers, hard drives and at least one gun. Though Belgian authorities say they have no firm idea of exactly how, when or where an attack was to have been carried out, they decided to move on the group after learning that one member had recorded a farewell video to his family. "We don't know who the suicide bomber was targeting, but we know he was ready to go," says Lieve Pellens, spokeswoman for the Belgian Public Prosecutor. "He had said his goodbyes."
The arrest of the network which had been monitored by 80 police and antiterrorism officers working full-time since the start of the year, according to Pellens came just hours before leaders of the European Union were set to open a two-day summit in the Belgian capital. That meeting doesn't appear to have been a target of a plot whose details authorities say remain hazy. Still, Belgian officials said the decision to seize the group had become urgent to prevent the designated suicide bomber from possibly launching an attack before police could discover the target and stop him.
Still, some experts wonder whether the arrests were premature, given the lack of information on the plot. "Could more evidence have been obtained? Might a full plot with targets and the weapons of attack have materialized if more time had been taken to just sit, watch and listen?" asked the European counterterrorism official. "Was everyone [in this network] under watch back from Afghanistan and [are they all] now under arrest? If not, that's a problem."
That question reflects the resurgence of Pakistan and Afghanistan as prime destinations for aspiring Europe-based jihadists in search of training. Following the ouster of the Taliban and the scattering of al-Qaeda from Afghanistan in 2001, Iraq became the theater of choice for the volunteer jihadist, like 38-year-old Belgian convert Muriel Degauque, who blew herself up in an attack on U.S. troops north of Baghdad in November 2005.
"Now we're seeing growing numbers of European extremists turning up in the Afghan-Pakistan region again often aided by networks created specially to help them get there," confides a French intelligence official. "This isn't a return to the preSept. 11 situation, but it's certainly the closest to it we've seen since the fall of the Taliban."
Some of those arrested in Belgium connect with earlier episodes of al-Qaeda violence. First among them is Malika El Aroud, a 48-year-old Belgian national whose Tunisian husband Abdessater Dahmane was one of two men recruited from Belgian extremist networks to assassinate Afghanistan's key anti-Taliban commander, Ahmed Shah Massoud, two days before 9/11. Since then, blogging under the pseudonym Oum Obeyda, El Aroud has been a fiery advocate for the jihadist cause, urging Muslim men and women to take up the fight.
Having become a conspicuous figure to which like-minded radicals tend to flock has made El Aroud of particular interest to investigators. In December she was among several people arrested, but eventually released, on suspicion that they were planning to break a convicted jihadist out of prison. If her visibility turns out to have aided Belgian cops in breaking up a jihadist plot, El Aroud's vocal radicalism may prompt future plotters to avoid her like the plague.
"She is extreme in her beliefs and her expression of them, which makes a lot of things she says and those who rush to echo them on radical websites somewhat transparent," says the European official, who declined to say whether such web communications were part of what led to Thursday's arrests. "This group she's been arrested with were real in their intent. The big question now is, Will we learn everything about it and its direction that we could have?"
With reporting by Leo Cendrowicz / Brussels