Why did the bombers target Belgium?

Jason Burke

Belgium seems an unlikely location for a hub of European extremist violence. But there are good reasons for the concentration of radical activity in the small state. Many of the problems that lead to militancy are common across the world, developing and developed, and though they may differ in severity, have the same consequences. These include a sizeable and poorly integrated Muslim minority, high levels of youth unemployment in that community, the availability of arms, a highly developed communications and transport network passing through the country, authorities that have been often complacent and always under-resourced, and domestic political instability.
Like other countries, Belgium has also seen the apparently inexorable spread of a violent ideology through social media and among peers which, if it does not directly encourage violence, certainly promotes a hate-filled, intolerant and deeply conservative worldview. The historic roots of the current problem are deep. As elsewhere in Europe, Belgium suffered waves of terrorism in the 1980s and 1990s linked to unrest in the Middle East. “There is a very long history of connection between Belgium and France in the realm of terrorism,” said Rik Coolsaet, an expert in terrorism at the University of Ghent.
In the 1990s, militancy in northern France connected to the Algerian civil war spilled over into Belgium. At least one preacher expelled from France arrived in Brussels. When locals expressed concern, officials told them the cleric was “marginal”, Johan Leman, a veteran anti-racism activist who works in Molenbeek, the Brussels neighbourhood where many of the Paris attackers came from and where Salah Abdeslam was arrested last week, said in November. In the first half of the last decade, as European security services struggled to understand the new threat they faced, and bombs exploded in Madrid and London, Belgium was largely ignored, despite mounting evidence of extremist networks based in the country.
If only a few score Belgians made their way to Iraq, this was still a sizeable contingent in relative terms. The volunteers included a convert from Charleroi who died in 2005 while bombing a US convoy in Iraq, becoming the first European woman to launch a suicide attack. Others travelled to Afghanistan. In 2008, a network sending young Belgian Muslims to al-Qaida training camps was broken up. Many appeared disappointed by what they found in the combat zone but that did not seem to stem the flow. Several returned with the intention of committing attacks at home, prosecutors claimed.
In Belgian cities, ostensibly non-violent radical networks flourished. One particular group attracted the attention of authorities, eventually prompting a vast trial. However, as in other European countries, it was the war in Syria that catalysed deep existing problems. By some estimates, Belgium has supplied the highest per capita number of fighters to Syria of any European country. Experts say about 450 out of a total population of 11 million that includes fewer than half a million Muslims have travelled.
A “high-end estimate” by Belgian researcher Pieter van Ostaeyen is 562. Most join Islamic State, while some opt for the al-Qaida affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra. More than 80 have been killed, many in recent battles in eastern Syria. Molenbeek, a borough of 90,000 in the capital where some neighbourhoods are up to 80% Muslim, is seen by many as a particular problem. Some commentators have claimed Molenbeek is a virtual no-go area where “police have little grip”. But interviews on the ground reveal a diverse community struggling to come to deal with a significant problem.
Leman, the activist who also works there, said recruiters often told teenagers their parents do not know “true Islam”. “They give a typical adolescent process [of rebellion] an Islamic dimension,” Leman said. Research from Oxford University confirms the importance of social networks, showing friends or peers played a primary role in the recruitment of three-quarters of foreign fighters to Isis. Family members accounted for a fifth of recruits, while mosques were thought to be responsible for just one in 20.
Montasser AlDe’emeh, a researcher in Molenbeek who counsels former and current fighters, said he personally knew one of two people who fought in Syria who were killed in January in a shootout with Belgian police in the town of Verviers. “He used to come into the cafe where I go from time to time. Everyone knows everybody round here. They talk, share videos, make plans. That’s how it works,” said AlDe’emeh. The role of mosques is controversial. AlDe’emeh said he knew of several clerics preaching in mosques who travelled to Syria last year. “Imagine what they were telling their congregations,” he said. But Abdelilla, a social worker with 20 years’ experience in Molenbeek, said mosques, whether officially registered or not, were not a major problem. And one mother whose son was killed fighting for Isis in Syria last year said he never attended mosques but had got involved with people “on the street”. Nor is poverty an explanation. Many of the Paris attackers were relatively well off. There is much activity beyond Molenbeek, too, even if several of the attackers who killed 130 people in Paris last year grew up and lived there.
One of those who escaped a dragnet early last year that rolled up most of a network of Belgians who had returned from Syria and were preparing to launch a series of attacks was Abdelhamid Abaaoud. He went on to organise the attacks in Paris. In the aftermath of that attack, Brussels authorities closed down the city for almost a week, shutting schools, offices and cultural buildings. Sporting events were cancelled and the army, with armoured vehicles, was deployed on to the streets.
But few were reassured as a wavering government of a country that has always had difficulty reconciling its French and Flemish-speaking communities and is prone to political instability, made a series of seemingly contradictory announcements about the security situation. Belgian security services appeared – despite the quality of many individual officials – overwhelmed. It was revealed that a few hundred agents were supposed to watch over thousands of potential militants. “We are simply exhausted,” one senior security official said in an email. A £200m counter-terrorism package was announced last month. It was too late.
— Courtesy: The Guardian

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