Brussels Placed On Highest Terror Alert After Serious Threat Of Paris-Style Terrorist Attacks

The Belgian government placed Brussels on highest alert for a terrorist attack Saturday, shutting down the city's public transportation system, canceling sporting events and advising residents and tourists to stay away from open, public spaces. The decision to effectively shut down the Belgian capital stemmed from a credible and serious threat of terrorist attacks similar to the ones that occurred in Paris on Nov. 13. Brussels has been the site of dozens of police raids since the wide-scale Paris attacks, which killed nearly 130 people and injured hundreds more.

The CrisisCenter Belgium said Saturday that the terror alert in Brussels and its immediate surrounding areas has been raised to "level four," which means "imminent and close by." The rest of the country remains at a "level three" alert. The CrisisCenter recommended Brussels residents to stay vigilant and avoid crowded areas, including train stations, shopping centers, and music venues.

A "three-pronged approach" has been taken to address the latest terrorist threat in Brussels, the CrisisCenter added in a statement. The approach included increasing the number of police and security forces in Brussels, decreasing the number of major events, and limiting access to public transportation.

Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel confirmed to the media that crowded public spaces have been identified as possible terrorist attack targets, the Washington Post reported. In addition to the metro, many movie theaters and department stores were shut down on Saturday.

Michel told the media in a news conference Saturday that "several individuals with arms and explosives could launch an attack ... perhaps even in several places," BBC News reported. The Brussels metro system will remain closed until Sunday.

Belgian Interior Minister Jan Jambon told the Belgian media on Saturday that "the situation is serious, but under control." The interior minister added in a statement that the crisis center's analysis showed a "serious and imminent threat that requires taking specific security measures."

The U.S. Embassy in Brussels issued a statement Saturday confirming the level four alert and advising American citizens to shelter in place and remain at home. "If you must go out, avoid large crowds," the U.S. Embassy in Brussels said.

The embassy added:

In this time of elevated threat, the U.S. Embassy in Brussels reminds U.S. citizens to exercise caution in public transportation systems, sporting events, residential areas, business offices, hotels, clubs, restaurants, places of worship, schools, public areas, shopping malls, and other tourist destinations.

Brussels residents circulated photos on social media Saturday showing the increased police and military presence throughout the Belgian capital. Soldiers with rifles patrolled the city as armored tanks filed through the narrow streets. Meanwhile, much of the city remained empty as residents and tourists heeded warnings to remain inside.

The city-wide lockdown comes as a manhunt for a suspect in the Nov. 13 Paris attacks continues to unfold in the Belgian capital. Belgian authorities said Thursday that three recent police raids, including a standoff in the heart of the Molenbeek suburb outside Brussels, led to the arrest of two suspects in connection with the Paris attacks. Meanwhile, 27-year-old Abdelhamid Abaaoud, believed to be the mastermind behind the deadly assault on Paris, was killed in a police raid north of Paris late Wednesday night.

Now, Belgian authorities are searching for Salah Abdeslam, a 26-year-old Belgian who has been identified as a suspect in the Paris attacks and is believed to be the only attacker still alive. Abdeslam reportedly drove a car that carried two gunmen, including his brother, to one of the sites of the Nov. 13 assault. Authorities believe Abdeslam fled to Belgium almost immediately following the night of terror in Paris. Belgian newspaper La Libre reported Thursday that Abdeslam was seen in the Brussels neighborhood of Anderlecht, but authorities have not confirmed the sighting.

According to The New York Times, the lawyer representing a man currently being held by Belgian authorities on terrorist charges said Abdeslam was likely supposed to be a suicide bomber the night of Nov. 13, but failed to go through with it. The lawyer's client rode in a car with Abdeslam from Paris to Belgium, and Abdeslam may have been wearing a bomb belt, the lawyer said.