The Rotten Heart of Europe

The rampant dysfunction in Belgium puts us all in danger.


Four days after Belgian police captured suspected Paris attacker Salah Abdeslam in Brussels — triggering a round of congratulatory news conferences in which French President François Hollande deemed the arrest “an important moment” in the fight against Islamist extremism — terrorism struck the Belgian capital. The Islamic State has claimed another hit on West European soil and here we go again: the gut-wrenching images of panicked people fleeing attack sites, the crushing stories of pain and loss, the displays of solidarity on social media and public buildings across the world, and, once again, the grief, shock, and panic.

But this attack — callous as it may sound to say — was coming. Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel said as much during a news conference in Brussels just hours after the attacks. “We feared a terror attack,” Michel said, “and it happened.”

“It happened” is just not a valid excuse for governments anymore. After two years of European nationals joining “the jihad” in Syria in droves, with the Islamic State repeatedly calling for attacks in the infidel lands in an ever-increasing array of languages, we need to be better prepared.

Belgium, in particular, needs to do better — for its own security and for the security of the world.

During the past 15 years, tiny little Belgium has made an appearance in far too many terrorist attacks. Back in 2001, Afghan resistance hero Ahmad Shah Masood’s killers transited through Brussels, picking support and resources, before they arrived in Afghanistan, where they killed Masood two days before the 9/11 attacks. Mehdi Nemmouche — whose deadly May 2014 attack on the Jewish Museum of Belgium became the first case of blowback on European soil from the Syrian jihad — spent time in the now-infamous Molenbeek district of the Belgian capital. When Amedy Coulibaly — the Frenchman who attacked a Paris kosher store days after the Charlie Hebdo attacks — needed weapons, he headed straight for Brussels. And of course, as we all now know, four of the suspected Nov. 13 Paris attackers — including the brutal, unsavory coordinator, Abdelhamid Abaaoud — hailed from Molenbeek.

It’s too early to say if there are direct links between the latest Brussels attacks and Abdeslam’s arrest. Belgian authorities say they don’t have any evidence yet, but then they never do. Or if they do, they won’t tell you in an official, centralized way. That’s for the media to glean, working sources, local officials in decentralized communes, bit by bit, piece by piece, until some semblance of the big picture emerges. On Tuesday afternoon, Michel arrived at his news conference without a death toll, or even a preliminary one, to relay. “Many deaths, many injuries,” is all he could manage. Casualty figures were left to the Belgian local media to glean the slow, Belgian way.

That’s how Belgium works. That, in fact, is how Belgium does not work and that’s how the tiny European nation, the seat of the EU, has gotten to the state it is in today.

But more on that later — back to Abdeslam. The 26-year-old Molenbeek resident of Moroccan origin, who has French citizenship, was arrested Friday, March 18, in his old neighborhood after a three-day police raid.

On Tuesday, March 15, Belgian police arrived at an apartment at 60 rue du Dries in the Forest district of Brussels on what they believed was a routine search. But when the small police team encountered heavy gunfire, they called in enforcements, including specialized teams and French police officials cooperating on the Paris attacks case, and proceeded to kill one man. He was later identified as Mohamed Belkaïd, a 35-year-old Algerian living illegally in Belgium. Two other men are believed to have escaped via the roof. Belgian police officials “confirmed” the raid was not linked to Abdeslam, the only suspected Paris attacker still on the run. But then Abdeslam’s fingerprints were found in the Forest apartment, raising questions about whether one of the two men who had escaped was indeed Europe’s most wanted man.

The morning after the Brussels attacks, Belgian state broadcaster RTBF identified two of the three men captured from CCTV footage at Zaventem Airport shortly before the attack. The two suicide bombers were identified as Khalid and Brahim El-Bakraoui, brothers who were known to the police, said RTBF, quoting police sources. One of the brothers, Khalid, had rented the apartment at 60 rue du Dries under a false name, according to the state broadcaster.

The third man in the CCTV footage, who is the subject of a massive manhunt, was identified as Najim Laachraoui, according to the Belgian newspaper DH. Laachraoui’s DNA has been found in houses used by the Paris attackers last year, and he had traveled to Hungary in September with Abdeslam.

Shortly after Abdeslam was finally captured in Molenbeek last week, Belgian Foreign Minister Didier Reynders told reporters the suspected Paris attacker had been planning further attacks. “We found a lot of weapons, heavy weapons in the first investigations, and we have seen a new network of people around him in Brussels,” said Reynders, sparking speculation that Abdeslam was forming a “new cell.”

In the immediate aftermath of this week’s Brussels attacks, there was speculation that the assaults were conducted to avenge Abdeslam’s arrest. That’s rather unlikely given the scope and complexity of the two strikes on the Brussels Zaventem airport and Maelbeek metro station. These coordinated plots take time to plan and execute. Judging from the footage revealing the extent of the damage at the Zaventem departures lounge, the suicide bombings required sophisticated explosives in vast quantities. Putting it all together from scratch in four days is not possible, no matter what Islamic State sympathizers believe and say.

Abdeslam’s arrest, however, could well have accelerated a long-planned terrorist plot. Shortly after his capture, officials confirmed that the suspect at a high-security Belgian jail was talking and cooperating with investigators. It’s possible that the latest attacks were fast-tracked amid fears within the Islamic State that the 26-year-old Frenchman in captivity might spill the beans.

What this reveals is the existence of multiple embedded networks in a European city working simultaneously on plots. This is alarming, of course, and not good news for security services. But in this day and age, we’d better get past the alarm, and fast, so we can concentrate on how to tackle the latest challenge before it’s too late.

For the longest time Belgium seemed such an obvious target for jihadist groups such as al Qaeda and the Islamic State, I sometimes wondered if these militants were steering clear of targeting the tiny European nations because things were just so good there for a rising jihadist.

Belgium has long been the one-stop shop for weapons, especially automatic rifles favored by the likes of Coulibaly and Abdeslam, in a continent with strict gun control laws. Weapons make their way from the former Yugoslav war zones and Eastern European arms black markets to Belgium, where they can be accessed with a few criminal-jihadist contacts. This is common knowledge in Belgium and France. On Jan. 7, 2015, as I stood outside the Charlie Hebdo offices with the press teams shortly after the attack, I asked my French colleagues where they thought these amounts of arms could have originated, given that we were in gun-controlled France. “Belgium,” came the prompt reply with a deep certainty.

The reason Belgium has a problem dealing with the weapons black market is the same reason the country can’t come to grips with its criminal-jihadist menace: The country is run by a decentralized administration, in a federal nation riven by divisions between French-speakers and Dutch-speakers.

In the field of law enforcement, the extreme decentralization and lack of coordination among various entities can be comical. In the old days, Brussels, which is divided into 19 communes or boroughs, had one police force for each commune — that’s 19 police forces, each policing between 20,000 and 150,000 people. They now have been consolidated into six police forces — still insane for a city with a population of 1.4 million. The failure of information and data sharing among various agencies is so acute, a researcher confessed to a Reuters journalist days after the Paris attacks, that, “in Belgium, there’s a problem with data management. Nobody knows how many illegal weapons there are in Belgium. … The reality is we have no idea.”

The debate around Molenbeek, Brussels’ most infamous borough, turned deeply political after the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, with center-right politicians blaming the Socialists, notably Philippe Moureaux, Molenbeek’s mayor from 1993 to 2012, for the unhappy state of affairs. In a Nov. 17 column in the Belgian daily Le Soir titled “Molenbeek: Merci Philippe!” Alain Destexhe, a senator from the conservative-liberal MR (Mouvement Réformateur) party that is part of the ruling coalition, accused Moureaux of “clientélisme” and cronyism. According to Destexhe, his political rival willfully turned a blind eye to the worsening situation within his constituency while courting community leaders in return for electoral victories. “For 20 years,” Destexhe noted in French, “a kind of omerta reigned,” where anyone who tried to break the silence or call attention to the problem was labeled an “Islamophobe or racist.”

Certainly when journalist Hind Fraihi, a Belgian of Moroccan descent, published her book Undercover in Little Morocco: Behind the Closed Doors of Radical Islam in 2006, she was dubbed a traitor by her community and criticized by the liberal press. Ignoring voices of alarm from within the community and labeling them “self-hating” Arabs or Muslims is a common theme in left-liberal circles. As the discourse on Islam in the United States and Europe gets genuinely racist and Islamophobic with the likes of Donald Trump and all sorts of nasty European right-wing politicians, this tendency to shush people from the community raising alarm bells will become only more acute in leftist circles.

This of course is a pity since the left — or progressives, or whatever you want to call them — will only be ignoring members of the community who actually have a deep understanding of the social dynamics at play. And they are the ones with the ability to raise early alarms when they spot something amiss. The majority of Muslims, we all know, have no patience for the Islamic State-style nihilistic nonsense passing for Islam. But in a democracy, all – and I mean all — opinions must be heard as long as they don’t incite violence.

In Belgium, alas, few mainstream officials genuinely understand their Muslim fellow citizens. Unlike France, which has a long history with the North African and sub-Saharan African Muslim world, Belgium has no colonial history with Muslim-majority regions. Most Belgian Muslims — estimated to be between 320,000 to 450,000, or about 4 percent of the population — are of Moroccan origin, followed by those of Turkish origin. Belgium’s history with Muslim communities dates back only to the postwar economic boom years, when low-skilled workers from the villages of Morocco and Turkey began working in Belgian coal mines and factories, with migration peaking in the 1960s.

But while Europe offered the sort of economic opportunities for which the 1960s generation of migrants was grateful, their children have been not so lucky. The economic downturn since the late 1970s saw the closure of Belgian coal mines and heavy industries, leaving areas of urban blight. Belgium’s national unemployment rate, hovering around 8 percent, climbs to more than 20 percent among the youth population. Among Belgians of Moroccan or Turkish origin, that figure can double to around 40 percent. Add high unemployment to the mix of poor policing, fuddled administration and services, and you have the perfect breeding grounds for marginalization and radicalization. Tiny Belgium today has the dubious distinction of being the country with the highest per capita numbers of nationals or residents who have traveled to the Islamic State-held Syria-Iraq badlands.

To be sure the bulk of Belgium’s Muslims want nothing to do with the Islamic State. But for those unemployed youths with few job opportunities and easy access to drugs and arms-dealing rackets, places like Molenbeek are a home away from home, where old, idealized codes of conduct from the rural heartlands their parents left behind can be transplanted to a cold, dreary Brussels hood.

Here in Europe, those codes of conduct, which place hospitality and kinship above the law, serve as ties that bind. And it was those ties that helped Abdeslam hide for four months under the noses of the Belgian security services. In the end, it was family and friends, not Islamic State operatives, who helped Europe’s most wanted man hide from the law. “Abdeslam relied on a large network of friends and relatives that already existed for drug dealing and petty crime to keep him in hiding,” said Belgium’s federal prosecutor Frederic Van Leeuw shortly after the capture. “This was about the solidarity of neighbors, families,” he told Belgian state broadcaster RTBF.

The problem, of course, is that there’s growing evidence of small, compartmentalized jihadist cells operating in places like Molenbeek across the European continent. These cells will be bound together by codes of conduct that put loyalty above all else. But they may not necessarily know what another cell may be plotting and planning. For law enforcement services, there is no alternative but to understand and try to infiltrate these networks. The time for excuses and maintaining that the problem is too big to contain is long over. Understaffed security services? Well, boost training and hiring programs. Not enough Arabic-speakers and people of Arab origins in the services? Well, for crying out loud, it’s time to reach out to the most economically marginalized of marginalized sections of the population. If places like Molenbeek need to be refurbished, revitalized, and reintroduced into the national mainstream, well do it, Belgium. We’re as tired of blaming Belgium as Belgians are of being blamed.

Photo credit: EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images

Leela Jacinto is an award-winning international news reporter at France 24 specializing in the Middle East and South Asia. Twitter: @leelajacinto