By Samindra Kunti
April 11 – The terrorist cell that struck at the heart of Paris and Brussels was planning to attack this summer’s European Championships, according to French media, further heightening security concerns ahead of the 24-nation tournament in June and July.
Mohamed Abrini, who was arrested last Friday, apparently told Belgian investigators that the group had never intended to target Brussels but had instead intended to launch another attack in France following the atrocities in November that left 130 dead and hundreds injured.
Belgian prosecutors revealed that the Brussels-based cell switched their target to the Belgian capital after investigators hunted down Salah Abdeslam, who is understood to be the last surviving Paris terrorist. Three days after Abdeslam’s arrest, coordinated attacks took place on Brussels airport and the city’s metro system, killing 32 people.
Investigators have found clear links between the cell behind the Brussels attacks and the group that carried out November’s attacks in Paris. Both were claimed by Islamic State.
Belgian prosecutors announced at the weekend that Abrini had confessed to being the third bomber at Brussels airport, depicted from CCTV footage as “the man in the hat.”
Belgium’s federal state prosecutor stated that “numerous elements” in the investigation showed the group “initially had the intention to strike in France again” following November’s deadly Paris bombings.
“According to our information, Mohamed Abrini has explained the initial intention of this nebulous terrorist Franco-Belgian terrorist group was to go into action during the Euro football tournament,” Libération reported.
“It’s not a scoop to learn that the terrorists want to strike during the Euros,” a police source was quoted as saying. “Security forces constantly develop attack scenarios and the way to respond.”
“If the Abrini statements are correct, it just confirms the fact that Belgium is an operational base that needs to be watched even more intensely. Jihadi networks and cells have been meeting there for at least ten years.”
French Prime Minister Manuel Valls said the new information only served to fuel the need for utmost security. “It’s extra proof of the very high threats to the whole of Europe and to France in particular,” he said. “We will not let our guard down.”
Earlier this month, the French staged a mock terrorist chemical attack in preparation for Euro2016. Both UEFA and the Local Organising Committee have vowed the tournament will go ahead as planned, but the security threat continues to cast a shadow over the tournament.
France will welcome more than 2.5 million fans in ten host cities with a further seven million expected in fan zones across the country. English, Irish, German, Belgian and Swiss fans are expected to flock to France in huge numbers.
Ever since the Paris attacks, France has maintained a national state of emergency, which will continue until May at least. French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve has already announced extra security measures for the tournament matches, including video surveillance and private security agents – on top of the 120,000 police and soldiers that have already been deployed to safeguard France.
Euro 2016 organizers will deploy an average of 900 security personnel per match and 10,000 over the whole tournament. UEFA and the local organisers are also drawing up anti-terror contingency plans for a worst-case-scenario.
Euro2016 kicks off on June 10 at the Stade de France with the hosts playing Romania. Last November the venue was one of the targets for the Paris suicide bombers during the friendly between France and Germany. The tournament culminates with the final on July 10 at Saint-Denis.
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