MADRID -- In a coordinated operation involving at least four countries, police in Belgium and Italy have arrested 17 suspected Islamic militants with alleged Al Qaeda links believed to be planning terrorist attacks in Europe. Among those detained was an Egyptian wanted by Spain for last March's deadly train bombings in Madrid.
Fifteen suspected militants were arrested in Belgium overnight Monday through yesterday in raids involving as many as 200 police officers in Antwerp and in the Brussels suburb of Schaerbeek, police told reporters in Brussels. The federal police director, Glenn Audenaert, said those arrested included Egyptians, Moroccans, Palestinians, and Jordanians.
Meanwhile in Milan, police staged a series of raids on separate locations and arrested two men, including Rabei Osman Sayed Ahmed, 33, known to Spanish authorities as "Muhammad the Egyptian." Spanish investigators said Ahmed is a former army explosives specialist who conducted training courses at Al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan during the Taliban regime, and they said he was here in Spain last year. At that time, he was in contact with the supposed ringleader of the March 11 train bombers, Sarhene ben Abdelmajid Farkhet, known as "The Tunisian." Farkhet, 35, committed suicide in a fiery explosion in a besieged apartment in a Madrid suburb on April 3.
Ahmed is believed by Spanish authorities to have recruited Farkhet at a Madrid mosque, and perhaps to have supplied the explosives expertise. "He was involved with 'The Tunisian,' " a Spanish Interior Ministry spokesperson told the
In one such call, according to Spanish radio station Cadena Ser, Ahmed reportedly was overheard saying of Farkhet and six others who blew themselves up in the Madrid suburb of Leganes, "Those in Spain are my friends, but I am sad because I could not go to heaven with them."
Spanish media also reported that Ahmed was arrested after he was positively identified visually by someone who could place him at the house in Spain where the bombs used on the trains were prepared.
No one was arrested in Spain tonight, the spokesperson said, adding that "the operation is ongoing."
Italy's interior minister, Giuseppe Pisanu, said Ahmed was "probably among the principal authors" of the Madrid train bombings that killed 191 people in the worst terrorist attack on European soil. He said Ahmed was "preparing other attacks" when police moved in.
Neither the police in Belgium nor in Italy told reporters when or where further attacks were being planned. European officials have been on heightened alert in recent weeks because of upcoming high-profile events, including the European parliamentary elections this weekend, the European championship soccer tournament in Portugal, a NATO summit meeting this month in Turkey, and the Olympic Games in August in Greece.
The most recent arrests point to a new level of cooperation among European police and intelligence agencies, which in the past had difficulties sharing information. They began working more closely following the March 11 attacks.
The arrests also point to the multinational character of the terrorist groups, which appear to include nationals of a half-dozen Arab countries as well as Palestinians, their deep reach into various European countries, and their ability to move relatively easily between those nations.
Josep Ramoneda, a terrorism specialist in Barcelona, said that while the arrests showed governments have been making progress since March 11, "there is still unease because of the presence of a sleeper cell in Spain with 3,000 persons" among the country's large North African population. Ramoneda said not all those 3,000 people were terrorists, but the cell included potential collaborators and sympathizers who could supply indirect assistance.
Spain was beginning proceedings to have Ahmed extradited to Spain.
Belgian authorities tonight would not say whether the 15 people arrested in the raids there were directly linked to the March 11 bombings. But Spanish officials said at least two of those arrested, a Palestinian and a Jordanian, were known "lieutenants" of Ahmed and were believed involved in the March attacks.
Cadena Ser radio said Ahmed was a member of Egyptian Islamic Jihad, one of the most powerful groups in the Al Qaeda network.
Special correspondent Maria Gabriella Bonetti in Paris contributed to this report.