On March 22nd, three coordinated terrorist bombings struck Belgium’s capital city of Brussels. Two suicide attackers exploded bombs at the city’s international airport in Zaventum. Another occurred on a subway train at the Maelbeek Metro station near the city center. 32 people were killed and over 300 were injured. The attacks were claimed by the Islamic State.
To learn why Brussels has become a major node of Islamic radicalism and terrorism in Europe, some recent history is useful. In 2010, a group of young Belgian men of Moroccan descent attacked a police station with AK-47 assault rifles. The socialist mayor of Brussels angered his countrymen after the attack when he calmly declared on national TV that “those things happen in big cities…there has been a shooting…and with AK-47s…so what? Soon all of this will just be considered a fait divers [news item]. OK to please you a serious fait divers….” The next year, the leader of the gang that carried out the attacks was arrested, convicted, and sent to prison for 10 years. But he did not serve the entire sentence.
Last month, that gang leader, Ibrahim El Bakraoui, was one of two who conducted suicide bombings at Brussels-Zaventem Airport. The same day, his brother Khalid blew himself up at the Maelbeek Metro station. These were not the only recent terrorist attacks with a connection to Belgium.
* In May 2014, a French national of Algerian descent shot and killed four at the Jewish Museum of Brussels. The shooter, Mehdi Nemmouche, had fought in Syria for Islamist rebels. His victims were two Israelis, one Frenchwoman, and a Belgian Jew of Moroccan descent.
* In August 2015, a suspected terrorist from Morocco, Ayoub El Khazzani, shot and stabbed passengers aboard a high-speed Thalys train on its way from Amsterdam to Paris via Brussels. Before a worse massacre occurred, El Khazzani was subdued by one French and three American passengers, two of whom were off-duty members of the U.S. Air Force.
* The perpetrators of the November 2015 attacks that killed 130 in Paris were part of a cell based in Molenbeek, a neighborhood in Brussels. Salah Abdeslam, a suspected accomplice in the Paris attacks, was finally captured after two anti-terrorist raids. But there were two incidents related to this police operation that illustrate the deep challenges for authorities trying to provide security to Belgian citizens and visitors to the country. First, it was reported that the operation was delayed for hours because the Belgium penal code prohibits such raids between 9 p.m. and 5 a.m., unless a crime is actually in progress. Second, but not widely reported in Belgium much less the rest of the world, was that the police conducting the raids in Molenbeek to capture Abdeslam were attacked with rocks and bottles by a mob of young men of North African descent.
Why Brussels? How do neighborhoods like Molenbeek become radicalized and become virtual safe havens for terrorists? How do you fight terrorism in such an environment?
Again, some historical background is relevant. The first wave of migrants from North Africa came to Belgium to work in the coal, steel and railway industries in Wallonia, the French-speaking region of the country. But post-war economic downturns and competition hit the region hard. Industries failed leaving large pockets of poverty and urban blight in the once thriving cities of Mons, Liège, and Charleroi. Many of these migrants moved to the larger cities such as Brussels in search of work.
Belgium is not alone in Europe in bringing in migrants from North Africa, the Balkans, or Turkey to work the fields and harvest crops (France, Spain), or labor in factories (Germany). These countries have struggled to assimilate the second and third generation of these immigrants who by choice or, by job, wage, and housing discrimination often concentrated in crowded, poor sections of cities, like the banlieue of Paris, or neighborhoods like Molenbeek.
Today, Belgium is home to an estimated 650,000 Muslims, around 6% of its overall population. Within the European Union (EU), only France (7.5%) has more. The number of Muslims in Brussels has reached 300,000. This home to NATO and numerous important EU organizations is now one of the most Islamic cities in Europe.
Influenced by Salafist preachers, an increasing number of Muslim youth have become militant. A few years ago, a group called Sharia4Belgium sought to impose Sharia law throughout Belgium and threatened several of the country’s leaders and institutions. After the conviction of its leader for inciting hatred and violence toward non-Muslims, the group disbanded. But not before it had recruited numerous Belgian jihadists to fight in Syria. It has been estimated that 450 Belgian nationals are fighting in the Middle East, one of the highest per capita ratios of European foreign fighters.
Also noteworthy is the number of alienated Muslim men born in Europe who have gone from petty (and not so petty) crime and drug dealing to terrorism – many radicalizing in prison. Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the alleged planner of the Paris attacks, and fellow plotters Ibrahim and Salah Abdeslam were all known to police for past criminal conduct. As was Cherif Kouachi, one of two brothers who committed the mass shooting at the offices of Charlie Hebdo. As was Amedy Coulibaly, who killed five at a Jewish Deli in Paris shortly after the Charlie Hebdo attack. And so too, Ibrahim and Khalid El Bakraoui, two of the Brussels suicide bombers.
Assimilating the large Muslim community is one problem. A dysfunctional political system is another. In a trenchant analysis, veteran journalist Tim King writes (“Belgium is a Failed State,” Politico, December 2, 2015), “Belgium has the trappings of western political structures, but in practice those structures are flawed and have long been so.” Citing the work of the Belgian scholars Kris Deschouwer and Lieven De Winter, King describes the development of political corruption and clientelism in the country. “Administrations were divided by their political allegiances. Politicians were masters of patronage, with jobs and money at their disposal, and, as a consequence, public service suffered.”
Putting it another way, in order to win enough votes to form a governing coalition, Belgian political parties fight for the support of various constituencies, such as North African immigrant voters in places like Molenbeek. Those constituencies deliver the votes and the politicians deliver the patronage in the form of generous government benefits and perhaps even protection from too much law enforcement scrutiny.
Belgium’s linguistic differences — between Flanders, the Dutch-speaking north, and Wallonia, the French-speaking south, doesn’t help. The Brussels capital region, for example, was designated a bilingual region. It consists of 19 independent jurisdictions with 19 mayors, more than a thousand of city council members, and 19 different local police departments. In an effort to increase their effectiveness, Flanders has long demanded that the 19 separate police departments in Brussels merge into one central department, as is the case in Antwerp. But the Brussels City Hall is in the hands of the French-speaking socialist party and any proposal to consolidate those 19 police forces would reduce the number of patronage positions available to be dispensed to the party’s friends and allies.
Like it or not, fighting terrorism involves greater centralization of power, people and money. As King notes, it also involves greater coordination among specialist teams of military, intelligence, and law enforcement agencies. Specialized equipment is required, particularly for surveillance and intelligence-gathering, and information must be shared across national borders. A nation cannot avoid the fact that security comes at a price.
In a federal system in particular, it is essential to clearly delineate responsibilities for intelligence, investigative, and security tasks. In the United States, there are 2,000 police departments, but only one FBI which is legislatively-mandated as the lead agency for preventing and investigating terrorism. They are supported by many other Federal agencies. Although there have been famous rivalries – such as between the FBI and NYPD – the Bureau by and large works closely with its federal counterparts and state and local law enforcement officers through structures such as the Joint Terrorism Task Forces (JTTF).
In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo shootings and the multiple attacks last November in Paris, France appears to have learned this lesson. Rivalry among the two main national law enforcement elements in France had been known to complicate operations as well as investigations. The National Police have responsibility within large cities and towns, while the National Gendarmerie operate in rural areas. The latter also have an elite intervention group, the GIGN, which conducts specialized counterterrorism operations. But this week, France’s interior minister Bernard Cazeneuve demanded that such rivalries end:
“The time is over for rivalry among forces, it’s time for unity,” Cazeneuve declared. “In the face of enemies who are determined to attack us while causing the most damage possible, with no desire to negotiate and whose own deaths are part of their philosophy and strategy, we need effective forces… working together towards the same goals.”
When the attacks occurred in Brussels last month, Belgium was moving in the opposite direction. Belgium’s linguistic divide makes it hard for agencies to communicate and coordinate with one another, including the sharing of intelligence. In addition, the country’s strict laws on surveillance, including the interception of telephone conversations, make it hard for the authorities to monitor potential terrorists. After last year’s Charlie Hebdo attacks, it was revealed that the Belgian secret service had a shortfall of 150 intelligence officers for its paltry staff of 750. A year later, only 42 people had been recruited for these jobs and their training would take another two years.
King says the machinery that in other countries would link local, regional and national law enforcement and security elements together is not joined up in Belgium. “To a large extent, the political class has come to terms with these dysfunctionalities, accepting them as a price that has to be paid for various linguistic and factional divisions.”
But in fact, it is the innocent – at places like the Bataclan and Zaventum – that suffer when a nation hesitates to pay the price of security.