How a Town Became a Terror Hub
Thursday, November 24, 2005
MAASEIK, Belgium -- The phones at city hall began ringing nonstop one morning last year when several masked figures were spotted walking through the cobbled streets of this pastoral town. A small panic erupted when one of the figures, covered head to ankle in black fabric, appeared at a school and scared children to tears.
It turned out the people were not hooded criminals, but six female residents of Maaseik who were displaying their Muslim piety by wearing burqas , garments that veiled their faces, including their eyes. After calm was restored, a displeased Mayor Jan Creemers summoned the women to his office.
"I said, 'Ladies, you can be dressed all in Armani black for all I care, but please do not cover your faces,' " Creemers recalled. "I tried to talk to them about it, but it was impossible. They said, 'We are the only true believers of the Koran.' "
What the city elders did not know at the time was that the women came from households in which several men had embraced radical Islam and joined a terrorist network that was setting up sleeper cells across Europe, according to Belgian federal prosecutors and court documents from Italy, Spain and France.
Over the next nine months, Belgian federal police arrested five men in Maaseik, a town of 24,000 people tucked in the northeast corner of Belgium. Each was charged with membership in a terrorist organization, the Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group, a fast-growing network known by its French initials, GICM.
With each arrest, investigators uncovered fresh evidence that placed small-town Maaseik at the center of a terrorist network stretching across Europe, the Middle East and North Africa. The town had served as a haven for suspects in the Madrid train explosions that killed 191 people in March 2004, for instance, as well as an important meeting place for the GICM's European leadership.
The Belgian investigation underscores the challenges that authorities in Europe face in tracking down sleeper cells and in sorting vaguely suspicious behavior from imminent danger. Police have made scores of arrests in Berlin, Paris, Rome, Stockholm and Amsterdam in the past two years to disrupt what were described as terrorist plots, although in many cases it remains unclear whether the threats were overstated or false alarms.
The problem has become more acute since the attacks in Madrid and the July 7 subway and bus bombings in London, with many intelligence officials predicting that Islamic radicals will inevitably strike again on the continent.
In Brussels, 13 people, including a group from Maaseik, appeared in court this month on charges of belonging to a terrorist organization and providing logistical support to the Moroccan network.
Despite an investigation that has reached into eight countries, Belgian authorities remain uncertain about the Maaseik cell's true mission . Police found no bombs, no guns, no blueprints for an attack -- just lots of worrisome evidence that the defendants were consorting with terrorism suspects from elsewhere and could have been planning something big.
"We are quite sure that we have proved that they were a logistical support cell," said a senior official with the Belgian State Security service, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "But the fact is, the potential was there to do something more serious."
An Operation Afoot
Maaseik is located in the Belgian province of Limburg, a few miles from the Dutch and German borders. Until recently, its chief claim to fame was as the home town of Hubert and Jan van Eyck, the 15th-century Flemish painters.