European authorities raided suspected Islamic militant groups in Belgium, Germany and France early Friday morning, arresting dozens of people amid a crackdown following the attacks on Paris last week. The sweeping actions appeared to be part of a coordinated effort across western Europe to stamp out potential threats amid fears that Islamic militants may be planning additional strikes.
In Berlin, police deployed 250 officers including three swat teams to search 11 properties overnight, part of a months-long investigation into a group with ideological ties to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and to Chechen groups fighting in Syria. Another 12 people were arrested in Paris and 13 in Belgium in separate counterterror operations.
The Berlin prosecutor’s office told NBC News that a total of 5 people were the focus of the German raids overnight, and that two people are presently in custody. Berlin police said the suspects are accused of recruiting and supporting foreign fighters to Syria, but that they had no concrete evidence of attacks planned in Germany.
The Friday morning arrests in Berlin come after a similar arrest yesterday in the north of the country, where the German attorney general said police had arrested a 26-year-old with dual German and Tunisian citizenship on suspicion of having joined ISIS. Investigators believe the man had traveled in May 2014 to Syria, where he is believed to have received military training, recruited fighters, and acted as a medic during a military offensive there. The attorney general said in a statement that there was no evidence of concrete terror attack plans.
“The raids in Berlin are part of a plan of German security officials,” Elmar Thevessen, a terrorism expert with ZDF, a German public-service broadcaster, told NBC News. “They want to show the Islamist scene that they are under surveillance after the Paris attacks, want to prevent copycat attacks and get reassurance that they have not missed any attack plans.”
Twelve people were also arrested in counterterror raids across the Paris region early Friday, according to the Paris prosecutor’s Chief Press Officer. They will be questioned on whether they provided weapons, transportation or other assistance to the three suspects in the deadly Paris attacks last week – the Kouachi brothers, accused of massacring 12 people at the offices of the satirical newsmagazine Charlie Hebdo, and Amedy Coulibaly, the suspected gunman who killed four hostages in a kosher supermarket.
The operations around Paris, part of an investigation into the three suspected terrorists, were not linked to the raids in Berlin, the prosecutor’s office said.
Europe’s heightened security and aggressive counterterror actions were a major talking point for President Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron, who held a press conference Friday afternoon following a formal meeting at the White House. In a joint op-ed for the Times of London on Thursday, the two leaders wrote they would “continue to stand together against those who threaten our values and our way of life” and “not be cowed by extremists.”
In the United Kingdom, there were 327 arrest for terrorist offenses in 2014, a 32% increase from the previous year, according to a statement released Friday by the U.K. Association of Chief Police Officers in light of the Paris attacks and renewed concerns over Islamic extremism in Europe.
The raids in Berlin and Paris come on the heels of nearly a dozen counterterrorism operations Thursday across Belgium, in which police executed 12 search warrants and arrested 13 people. In the town of Vervieres, two suspects were killed and a third injured when they opened fire on police. Belgium officials said in a press conference Friday that law enforcement had recovered several heavy weapons, police uniforms, communications equipment, fake documents, and cash at the scene.
“This investigation has shown that these people had intention to kill several policemen in the street and police commiserates,” Belgium Federal Prosectuor Eric Van Der Sypt told reporters. “We are pleased with the outcome in that we could arrest a lot of people. We gave an important blow to terrorism in Belgium. We regret the loss of two lives. But we are also happy that we lost no police or civilian lives.”
According to separate U.S. sources, the suspected extremists intended retaliatory attacks in Belgium because of the U.S.-led bombing campaign against ISIS militants in Iraq and Syria.
The investigations that led to the Belgium raids began weeks ago, Van Der Sypt said, before the attacks in Paris. He said there was “no link between these two cases” for the time being, though two people were also arrested in France in connection with the operation.
According to intelligence analysts spoken to by NBC in August, Belgium had about 400 foreign fighters in Syria, the majority of them fighting alongside ISIS.