Belgium was on high alert on Friday after a major raid on an alleged jihadist group which prosecutors said had been planning to attack police on the streets and at police stations.
The public was advised to stay away from police stations except in case of emergencies and major Jewish schools were closed, after a coordinated operation against several suspected jihadist safehouses which left two people dead and thirteen in custody.
The deaths of two suspects came in a shootout with police during the largest raid, in Verviers, a French-speaking town in eastern Belgium. A third person was arrested.
Amateur footage purporting to show the Verviers raid which left two dead. Video via YouTube.
Eric Van Der Sypt, a police spokesman, told reporters: "The investigation… has shown that these people had the intention to kill several policemen in the street and at police commissariats (stations).
"The operation was meant to dismantle a terrorist cell… but also the logistics network behind it," he said.
Security forces seized police uniforms, guns, munitions and explosives, and a large amount of money during the operation, another spokesman, Thierry Werts, added.
The anti-terror operation was launched at around 5:45 pm local time when elite police raided around 10 premises, officials said. In Verviers, investigators had identified a jihadi cell including militants who had fought with armed extremist groups in Syria. The investigation led authorities to believe that the cell was planning "large scale terrorist attacks in Belgium" in the imminent future.
The suspects opened fire on police as soon as they entered the building, using hand guns and "military weapons," the Belgian justice ministry said. Police eventually shot two suspects dead and apprehended a third. There was no casualties among police forces or civilians.
On Friday morning, French radio France Info cited unnamed sources as saying the suspected terrorist cell had also planned to kidnap a public figure and behead him or her on camera.
Belgique : selon nos infos, l'objectif était aussi d'enlever une personnalité publique et de la décapiter devant les caméras 2/2
— France Info (@franceinfo)16 Janvier 2015
Thursday's operation also included a raid in Molenbeek, where one suspect was arrested, and in Brussels.
Authorities raised the national terror alert level from two to three, of a maximum of four. Surveillance and security measures meant to protect police stations from attack were also boosted, with guards armed with submachine guns posted outside. Police officers in Anvers have been given permission to take their duty guns back home, according to local daily Le Soir.
Belgium is said to be the European country with the highest per capita rate of jihadists joining armed groups in Syria.
No link has been established with the terrorist attacks that killed 17 in France last week.
On Thursday night, twelve people were arrested in the Parisian region, according to police sources cited by local media. They were said to have been made in order to obtain more information about possible help and support provided to the culprits of the French attacks and how they obtained weapons and vehicles.
Meanwhile, German police announced on Friday morning that they conducted 11 raids in Berlin targeting Islamists groups, but that they had received no indications that those groups were planning an attack in the country.
Anne Giudicelli, the founder of security consultancy TERR(O)RISC, told VICE News that there had been a simultaneous acceleration in both raids by counter-terrorist units in Europe and by the terrorists themselves in setting up attacks. She added that in Vervier, the individuals were targeted by counter-terrorist services due to a number of converging factors. "It's hard to know if the two men killed yesterday were the ones who were going to carry out the attack, or if they were just part of a network. We know little about their plans, only that security forces decided to target them."
Giudicelli said that the phenomenon of homegrown terrorists in Europe began in London with the 7/7 London tube bombings in 2005. "Europe has moved from being a rear base (for jihadists) to becoming their main field of action." This has been exacerbated by the US-led international coalition targeting the Islamic State, the extremist group based in Iraq and Syria, she added.
"There has been an acceleration in links between what is going on in Europe and in Iraq and Syria… The "lock" which used to protect Europe, and allow the use of European countries as a rear base, is no longer there," Giudicelli said. "Greater controls to access the Schengen Area for non-Europeans makes it more complicated for terrorists to send foreigners for terrorist attacks. This is why locals are "doing the job" in carrying the attacks."
Additional reporting by Mélodie Bouchaud
Follow Etienne Rouillon on Twitter @rouillonetienne