Belgian Counterterror Cop Warned of Terrorists on the Loose
In 2015, Alain Grignard said there were radicals the police didn't know about
Suicide bombers struck an airport and a subway train in Brussels on March 22, killing no fewer than 30 people and wounding potentially hundreds. Islamic State claimed responsibility for the coordinated assault, which came just four days after police in Brussels arrested the surviving suspected planner behind Islamic State’s November 2015 terror attacks in Paris.
Belgium has been in terrorists’ crosshairs for a while, now. In an August 2015 interview with West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center, Alain Grignard — a senior member of the counterterror unit in the Brussels Federal Police and a lecturer at the University of Liege — warned that the terror threat in the country had “never been higher.”
“It boils down to mathematics and it’s all linked to the Syria dynamic,” Grignard said. “A high number of Belgian extremists have traveled to join jihadi groups in Syria and Iraq. Wannabe Belgian jihadis are still leaving every month. There’s no way of knowing the exact numbers but I can tell you with certainty that at least 300 have traveled — that’s the number we have sufficient evidence to bring charges against. At least 100 have returned to Belgium, but we are under no illusions that there aren’t more we don’t know about. It’s impossible to do surveillance on everybody.”
“In the past two years we’ve charged more people with terrorism offenses than in the 30 years before that,” Grignard added.
In May 2014, a French extremist who had allegedly spent time with Islamic State in Syria gunned down four people at a Jewish museum in Brussels. The following January, Belgian police disrupted an alleged Islamic State plot in the town of Verviers. Grignard said authorities recovered weapons, bomb-making materials and police uniforms from the suspected terrorists’ safehouse in Verviers. “All this indicates they were preparing a terrorist campaign in Belgium rather than a one-off attack on police,” he said. “We don’t yet have all the details on what they were planning.”
Grignard described the Verviers suspects as “men in their early 20s mostly from the Molenbeek district of Brussels” who had been “moving in circles with a track record of delinquency and petty crime.”
“They were radicalized very quickly, and when they came back from Syria they had no fear of death. When our commandos launched their raid it took the suspected terrorists one second to switch from chatting between themselves to opening fire. These guys had maybe more experience in gun battles than our own commandos.”
And the terrorists are technologically sophisticated, Grignard said. “It’s not uncommon for a suspected member of a terrorist cell we are monitoring in Belgium to have a dozen cell phones and 40 SIM cards. And many have moved away from using the phone altogether, shifting to communicating over Skype and various VoIP’s, WhatsApp, Twitter and online games played through video consoles. Given the fast changing technologies, it’s difficult for the police to keep up.”