Brussels terror attack: Why Belgium is emerging as the biggest hub for jihadi extremism in Europe

A string of explosions rocked Brussels airport and a city metro station on Tuesday, killing at least 21 people, according to media reports, as Belgium raised its terror threat to the maximum level.

Devparna Acharya March 23, 2016 10:51:05 IST
Brussels terror attack: Why Belgium is emerging as the biggest hub for jihadi extremism in Europe

A string of explosions rocked Brussels airport and a city metro station on Tuesday killing at least 26 people according to media reports. Belgium raised its terror threat to the maximum level.

The blasts come days after the dramatic arrest in Brussels on Friday of Salah Abdeslam — prime suspect in the Paris terror attacks that killed 130 people in November 2015, after four months on the run. Soon after the explosions hit the Belgian capital, reports suggested that it was a revenge strike. However, the rumours have not been confirmed; but it is a logical extrapolation.

The reports are suggestive of the fact that the network of Salah Abdeslam is still functioning. Abdeslam's arrest has been touted as one of the key arrests. Despite Abdeslam's arrest, who was touted as one of the key arrests from the Islamic State network, the group continues to terrorise,  mobilise and polarise with violence.

Belgium’s foreign minister, Didier Reynders, on Sunday said that Abdeslam had told investigators he was planning fresh attacks in Brussels. "He was ready to restart something in Brussels, and it may be the reality because we have found a lot of weapons, heavy weapons, in the first investigations and we have found a new network around him in Brussels," Reynders was quoted as saying by AFP.

It is clear that Abdeslam was not the lone operative behind last year's Paris attack. Childhood friend of Abdeslam, Mohammad Abrini, a man of Belgian and Moroccon origin, who also played a crucial role in planning the November attacks. It is possible that the network acted even before the security services rolled them up. Abdeslam couldn't have acted alone or for that matter couldn't have escaped the security forces on his own. He was on the run for a long time and during this time was looked after by dozens. The terror attack on Brussels is not about a revenge strike, but about the intense radicalisation deeply entrenched in broader communities and neighbourhoods. Take Molenbeek for example, the neighbourhood which housed most of the Paris attackers.

Brussels terror attack Why Belgium is emerging as the biggest hub for jihadi extremism in Europe

Special operations police take positions during a raid in Brussels on Tuesday. AP

November's attacks and today's attack in Brussels have thrust Molenbeek into the international spotlight. Belgian authorities carried out a series of raids searching for key suspects believed to have lived in the area. Two people arrested have been charged with terrorist offences.

It's led to Molenbeek being widely labelled as a jihadi haven, but for some residents that's an unfair description.

Paris attacks were but the latest in a litany of jihadist incidents over the last two years involving people with ties to Molenbeek, including the 2014 shooting at the Jewish museum in Brussels, the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January and the failed attack in August on a Thalys train. According to Politico, long before the emergence of jihadism, Molenbeek had acquired a reputation for lawlessness.

"But the more painful question that should be asked is: What do Molenbeek’s failures reveal about the deep dysfunction in the Belgian state? That Molenbeek has been allowed to become a breeding-ground for jihadism says some damning things about formal and informal structures in Belgium, and in particular Brussels."

The report further added that despite being in the heart of Brussels, what is remarkable about Molenbeek is its proximity to poverty and lawlessness. Molenbeek, by comparison, is tiny. It is one of the most densely populated parts of Brussels, but its population is only 95,000. And it is not that the entire borough is a no-go zone. The problems of lawlessness are concentrated in much smaller areas.

But, according to experts, the problem may not be about places, but people. Research from Oxford University confirms the importance of social networks, showing friends or peers played the primary role in the recruitment of three-quarters of foreign fighters to Islamic State; family members accounted for a fifth, the mosques for just one in 20.

The International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation, part of King’s College London, has estimated Belgium supplies some 40 fighters for every million inhabitants — a figure more than four times that of Britain, and twice that of France.

And Molenbeek has been linked to spectacular attacks round the globe going as far back as the 2001 assassination of the Northern Alliance leader Ahmad Shah Massoud.  It is estimated that Muslims make up six percent of the Belgian population, but that figure is 25 percent in Brussels and 40 percent in Molenbeek. The unemployment rate in the district is 30 percent, but it is believed to be even higher among immigrants.

But many in the city, from ordinary residents to the officials who run Molenbeek, are frustrated that there is not more support for integration, and monitoring young people who are at risk from radicalisation both through friends and online, The Guardian reported.

Speaking to Brussels-based journalist Mehmet Koksal, Spiegel Online International said, "Most of the Muslims are moderate, but there are also sharply radicalized groups with connections, for example, to the Salafists. They tell young people that they aren't European or Belgium and that it's 'us against the others.'" Koksal has been covering the Islamist scene for years.

This apart, terrorists are drawn to Belgium more than any other country in Europe. And one of the major reason is its strategic location. Placed strategically between France, Germany, UK and Netherlands. Belgium is part of the Schengen area, which means its outside borders are open, making it extremely easy for terrorists to enter and leave the country quickly.

Kristof Clerix in this article in The Guardian said that the anonymity of Brussels "appears to offer an ideal hiding place", for terrorists and their sympathisers. And the young population, most of them with Muslim backgrounds, do not get the same opportunity in jobs and education and are confronted with racism on a daily basis. They have the perfect profile to be prone to radicalisation.

Buying illegal firearms in Brussels is not a big deal. The city has less than six different police zones making the fight against illegal arms trafficking and other forms of organised crime cumbersome and inefficient.

According to the BBC, security apparatus of Belgium is extremely small as well. Belgian state security only has some 600 employees (the exact figure is classified information). Its military counterpart, Adiv, has a similar number. That makes just over a thousand intelligence officers to secure a country that hosts not only Nato and the EU institutions but also the World Customs Organisation, the European Economic Area, the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (Swift), the European Organisation for the Safety of Air Navigation (Eurocontrol), another 2,500 international agencies, 2,000 international companies and 150 international law firms.

Ironically, Brussels is the diplomatic capital of the world. It's a problem that is bigger in Belgium than anywhere else in Europe. No other European nation has seen as many jihadists travel to Syria relative to the overall population. Officials in Belgium estimated that out of a population of 11 million residents, around 500 have so far made the journey to jihad in Syria. Comparatively, it is estimated that 800 people from Germany, a country with a population of 81 million, have travelled to Syria.

In this sense, Belgium's problem is a European problem.

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