The streets in Brussels were deserted Saturday evening after authorities raised the city’s threat level to four —the maximum, indicating that the risk of an attack is “serious and imminent,” according to the country’s security committee.Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel said “relative precise information” led investigators to conclude there is a risk that several individuals are planning Paris-style attacks in the capital, “maybe even on several places at the same time.” He added, “potential targets are commercial centers, streets and public transportation, but also places where crowds of people are.”
Officials cited as one concern that Salah Abdeslam, a prime suspect in the Paris attacks who is still being sought, was last seen in Brussels and would have plans, along with others, to stage a similar attack on multiple locations in the city.
Security Minister Jan Jambon on Saturday evening told Flemish broadcaster VRT that “the threat is larger than only one figure,” referring to Abdeslam. “We’re assuming larger actions are underway,” he said.
Brussels, the capital of the European Union, was effectively shut down due to the threat level — bars and restaurants were asked to close, and subway stations, museums and shopping malls were shuttered following the terror alert.
At least five military troops stood guard at the entrance of the Nieuwstraat, normally a bustling avenue at this time of year, when thousands flock to the city to do Christmas shopping or enjoy a Saturday night out at nearby restaurants.
A sign advertising Sinterklaas, a local precursor to Santa Claus, stood behind a gate barring entry to a shop. Barely anyone except tourists and journalists now walked the street as many residents heeded the government’s advice to avoid crowded places.
“We’re very scared,” a resident said, walking past a military truck parked in the street. “What’s particularly worrying is that everyone is a target,” he added.
A tourist from Spain said she thought no one was safe anywhere. In Madrid in 2004, an assault on the metro killed 191 people, the deadliest attack in Europe since a Pan Am flight was bombed over Lockerbie, Scotland in 1988.
The Schuman area of Brussels, home to the European Union headquarters, was nearly empty Saturday, save for a handful of passersby and military troops on guard. The neighborhood’s subway station was closed, and the Barlaymont building, which houses the European Commission, the bloc’s executive body, stood dark in the background.
In Vilvoorde, a town on the outskirts of Brussels not bound by the threat alert but known for its high concentration of youth who left for Syria, Mayor Hans Bonte cancelled local Sinterklaas celebrations as well as a soccer game.
Belgium’s national security committee, which is tasked with assessing the risk of attacks, will gather again Sunday afternoon to assess the threat level.
An arrest and a peace march
Brussels was the home of Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the suspected organizer of the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, and Belgium has filed charges of “participation in terrorist attacks and participation in the activities of a terrorist organization” against three suspects relating to the Paris attacks.
In Turkey, officials detained a 26-year-old Belgian national of Moroccan origin, who was believed to have been in contact with the Paris attackers. Ahmet Dahmani was detained in the coastal city of Antalya along with two other suspected Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) fighters. A senior Turkish government official said Dahmani was believed to have been in contact with the Paris attackers, though the official did not say when. Dahmani had arrived in Turkey on Nov. 14 from Amsterdam, and the three were preparing to cross into Syria, the official said.
Government officials in Belgium and France would not immediately comment on Dahmani’s arrest.
Concerns about Europe’s porous borders prompted interior and justice ministers meeting in Brussels on Friday to promise tightened controls to make it easier to track the movements of fighters with European passports traveling to and from war zones in Syria.
Paris prosecutors said Friday that they had determined through fingerprint checks that two of the seven attackers who died in the bloodshed Nov. 13 had entered Europe through Greece, an entry point for many of the hundreds of thousands of migrants seeking asylum in Europe.
The five other attackers who died had links to France and Belgium. One of the seven dead has not been identified, while a manhunt is underway for Abdeslam.
In France on Saturday, regional authorities say some 10,000 people marched in the southwestern French city of Toulouse in a rally “for civil rights and peace.”
The largely silent event was held to commemorate the victims of last week’s attacks in Paris that killed 130 people. Participants held banners condemning the “barbarism” of the attacks and warning against holding all Muslims responsible for the violence.