World

Why Brussels Makes Total Sense for an ISIL Attack—Yet Was Supremely Ill-Prepared

In many ways, the tragedy in Belgium was both inevitable and avoidable.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia

Earlier today the New York Times reported the identity of the two suicide bombers who carried out yesterday’s terrorist attacks in Brussels that left 31 dead and 270 injured, according to the current toll. The terrorists were brothers Ibrahim and Khalid el-Bakraoui, Belgian citizens with a prior criminal record, but no known links to terrorism—until a raid by authorities last week.

Whether having this information any earlier would have made a difference in preventing the attacks is up for debate. Less in question, though, is the conducive environment that Brussels provided for the likes of the el-Bakraoui brothers.

In a New Yorker article from last year, Ben Taub reported that of the roughly 4,000 European jihadis who had left for Syria since the war’s outbreak, over 400 were from Belgium. In another Atlantic article, that number is calculated to be as high as 516, making Belgium the European country with the highest per capita of citizens involved in the jihadist war.

Taub focused his story on Jejoen Bontick, a Belgian citizen who’d participated in a jihadi radicalization program based in Antwerp. That program, according to Taub, went on to send “dozens of Belgian youths” to Syria to take up arms against the government of Bashar al-Assad. Taub revealed the disturbing fact that prior to ISIL announcing its presence in Syria, thousands of Belgian federal police documents already had intel on Bontick's group and others like it, whose primary objective was to establish an Islamic caliphate through violence.

Molenbeek: a petri dish for terrorism

“We were already talking about terrorism in 2012, but at that time no one wanted to talk about terrorism,” a Belgian security official told Taub, explaining this as an unwillingness by authorities to admit that much of this extremism came directly from Belgian citizens.

Yesterday’s attacks represent an inevitable tragedy long in the making. Given this fact, the question of the moment is what led to Belgium becoming Europe’s breeding ground for terrorism?

A prescient Politico article by Tim King published last December addressed this very issue. If terrorism is a virus that attacked Brussels yesterday, the city suburb of Molenbeek was the petri dish. Burdened with the title of Europe’s Terror Capital, the municipality has long been known for its inability to police an area that has spurred jihadists involved in the 2014 shooting at the Jewish museum in Brussels, the Charlie Hebdo attacks and now, the el-Bakraoui brothers. Beyond jihadism, Molenbeek is also generally known as a place of lawlessness with high levels of petty crime.

With these facts in mind, King sought to address the question, "What do Molenbeek’s failures reveal about the deep dysfunction in the Belgian state?" He attributed these failures to the successive reforms made by the Belgian government over the past 40 years, creating a “vacuum that is being exploited by jihadi terrorists.” He described the reforms as constituting “one part politics and government; one part police and justice; one part fiscal and economic.”

The income gap

In the 19th century, Belgium was the second country in Europe after Britain to experience an industrial revolution. As a result, the nation's coal, steel and railway industries enjoyed a boon, helped in no small part by the exploited mineral riches of the its African colony in the Congo.

“It was those heavy industries that spurred the first waves of economic migration to Belgium,” said King, noting how the country's companies went on to seek cheap labor in North Africa. This saw the initial establishment of the large Muslim population in Molenbeek and beyond, which had its origin in migration from Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia.

In the years since, the Belgian fiscal setup has seen the wealthy taxed relatively lightly. As a result, King noted, the income disparity gap between the wealthy and the poor (mostly descendants of the original migrant workers), has only widened.

“Belgium is, per capita, a wealthy country, but has contrived to achieve a situation in which the employed population feels heavily taxed and doubts the quality of public services that it receives in return,” said King. “Having too narrow a tax base, the Belgian state is poorly equipped to address the few pockets of desperate poverty, such as Molenbeek.”

The politicization of the police

Citing the notorious case of serial killer Marc Dutroux, King described alleged “revelations of police and judicial mistakes” as the direct result of political interference meant to protect the child molester at the time. While these allegations were never proven, they emphasized the distrust among Belgians of the country’s “politicization of the police and judiciary.”

King further explained this incident as being indicative of “the fragmentation of police and court work in Belgium.” This reflects Belgium’s localized political landscape, which contributes to politicians being “reluctant to give up their patronage by merging resources” according to King, who cited the example of Brussels, which “has 19 communes, or boroughs, which range in population from 20,000 to 150,000. Each commune had its own police force. Although they have been now consolidated into six, that is still a logistical nonsense in a city of only 1.4 million. It still means that the commune police are perceived as a local provider of jobs for the low-skilled.”

Essentially, the lawlessness in places like Molenbeek comes down to a lack of “commitment to enforce” the law. Beyond the minor implications this holds for crime, King zeroed in on the far larger problem Belgium’s watered-down patronage network has come to hold for terrorism.

The decentralization of intelligence

“In virtually every other European country, the fight against terrorism involves greater centralization of power, people and money,” said King, emphasizing authorities' need to share information within and across national borders. “But Belgium … is moving in the opposite direction.”

By refusing to unite as a state, Belgium’s political environment has created the divisions that have provided fertile territory for terrorism to thrive in the country. “For outsiders, it should be admitted, this is part of what makes Belgium an easy place in which to live. The state, by and large, is unassertive. People can get by, perhaps relying on informal support structures. For the most part, they do not need the law,” King concluded.

With these grave words in mind, the attacks that took place in Belgium yesterday, while tragic, should not be considered surprising.

Robin Scher is a freelance writer from South Africa currently based in New York. He tweets infrequently @RobScherHimself.

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