European security forces moved against suspected radical jihadists in two countries Thursday in the latest sign that last week’s Charlie Hebdo terrorist attacks have galvanized action against what officials for months have called a rising threat.
In Belgium, police killed two suspected jihadists and arrested one, while in Germany, police arrested a man they accused of recruiting fighters for Syria. In France, police linked a fourth shooting incident to the terrorist cell that carried out the Charlie Hebdo attacks a week ago.
Officials didn’t link the new cases to one another or to the Paris attacks that left 17 victims and three terrorists dead. But the events showed that after years of nervously watching so-called “jihadi tourists” sneaking into, and back from, Syria, European security forces were acting.
The raids and arrests came as Paris began to bury the dead from the Jan. 7 attack on the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo. On Thursday, the cartoonists Georges Wolinski, 80, and Bernard Verlhac, 58, known as Tignous, were buried. Others will follow in the coming days.
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Pope Francis noted Thursday that although free speech is a fundamental human right, there are limits.
“You cannot provoke,” said. “You cannot insult the faith of others. You cannot make fun of the faith of others.”
He also said violence such as what happened in Paris couldn’t be justified.
The fourth incident linked to the Paris terrorism spree involved the Jan. 7 shooting of a jogger who was seriously wounded but survived. The French newspaper Le Parisien said the suspect in that shooting had been identified and had been linked to a motor scooter found at a residence that Amedy Coulibaly, who killed a policewoman and four hostages before being gunned down when police stormed a Paris kosher supermarket, had rented to store his weapons.
The newspaper said police now think that Coulibaly, brothers Chérif and Saïd Kouachi – blamed in the Charlie Hebdo shootings – and the fourth suspect were members of what the paper said authorities were calling an active terrorist cell. Authorities are also seeking Coulibaly’s wife, Hatay Boumeddiene, who’s thought to have fled to Syria on the day her husband was killed.
“We are really in a war,” French police union spokesman Christophe Crepin said Thursday.
The French developments came as security forces in Belgium moved against what a prosecutor called an “operational cell” that had “imminent plans to attack.” The arrests, in the quaint small town of Verviers, were captured on amateur video. The video showed several explosions and repeated gunfire. There were news reports that the case also was connected to Coulibaly, who’s thought to have purchased his weapons in Belgium.
There was no official comment linking the cases, however.
In Germany, police announced that they’d arrested a German citizen under suspicion that he was a member of a 40-person terror cell in the Wolfsberg region made up of people who’d fought in Syria.
The German equivalent of the Department of Homeland Security, the Verfassungsschutz, identified the suspect only as Ayub B. and said he’d returned from “violent jihad training in Syria” in mid-August, one of an estimated 600 Germans known to have gone to fight in Syria or Iraq, including an estimated 20 former members of the German army.
German security officials announced that Ayub B. had traveled through Turkey and into Syria in May. While there, they said, he underwent “jihadist military training,” which included work removing the dead and wounded from active battlefields. Since returning, German officials said, he’s thought to have been recruiting others to the Islamic State cause. He faces 10 years in prison if convicted of the crime of “membership in a terrorist organization.”
German security officials have said they think Germany is home to 43,000 Islamists who might be susceptible to recruitment.
French officials now think that at least 1,000 French citizens and residents have gone to the Middle East to fight for the Islamic State or other terror organizations. European counterterrorism officials note that most nations face an issue of how to deal with hundreds of returning fighters.
The United Kingdom reports “more than 500.” Europe-wide, there are thought to be 2,500 to 3,000 or more.
Still, terror experts said it was “too early to judge” whether the recent spate of terrorism and anti-terror activity in Europe indicated a new, more active phase in dealing with the threat of returning jihadi tourists.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story provided an incomplete identification for the German suspect. German police identified him as Ayub B.