Why Brussels? There are too many reasons
On Friday morning in Brussels, police sirens screamed throughout the capital as officers raced to hunt down the suspects behind the devastating March 22 bombings. On that Tuesday morning, two explosions ripped through Brussels airport, bringing the roof down on fleeing travelers and killing 11 people. An hour later, a bomb exploded on a train leaving Maalbeek station for the city center. This proved the most deadly attack, killing 20 people
At the time of writing, 300 victims were still in hospitals, 61 of them with critical injuries. Armed guards patrolled the streets, incongruous in their bulky camouflage. Police were still launching raids on the neighborhoods of Molenbeek and Schaerbeek, while others stopped commuters at metro stations to sift through their bags.
Beneath the grief of Brussels residents was anger. Their government had been warning for weeks of an impending attack—previous raids on militants’ safe houses had unearthed guns and traces of explosives. Perhaps most damning of all, police were aware of two of the assailants, the el-Bakraoui brothers, one of whom Turkey had even arrested in July 2015 and warned Belgium about. In the minds of many Belgians, it was clear: The government had failed.
But answering the question, “Why Brussels?” requires more than just looking at the leads security services missed. Counterterrorism experts who spoke with Newsweek noted the economic deprivation of neighborhoods with a high Muslim population; radicalization in the country’s prisons; the convoluted Belgian governance system; and a lack of European integration as factors that could also explain why ISIS sympathizers found Brussels an easy target.
For the past few years, Belgium has struggled with extremism. Since 2012, it is estimated that close to 500 Belgians have traveled to Syria and Iraq to join militants there. Per capita, it has the largest number of foreign fighters in Europe. Some of these militants are believed to have come from the district of Molenbeek, close to central Brussels. Around 25 to 30 percent of its population identifies as Muslim and more than 20 mosques serve the neighborhood. Contrary to some media reports, it is not a “no-go zone” nor a ghetto. The day after the attacks, people in Molenbeek were going about their business as usual. The area seemed ordinary if a little run down—public housing is abundant and rubbish litters the streets.
“It is not dangerous to live here,” says 30-year-old Hicham who runs a bodega a few doors down from where police arrested Paris attack suspect Salah Abdeslam on March 18. (Hicham asked that Newsweek not use his last name.) “These guys [who join ISIS] are young. They have been manipulated by the true radicals. They’re just seeking someone to teach them religion and to guide them.”
A dearth of opportunity is one of the factors pushing these young men toward radicalizers promising them a better life. Unemployment in the district is around 30 percent, compared with the national average of 8.5 percent.
“There’s a strong social disparity in areas like Molenbeek,” says Pauline Massart, deputy director, global and security Europe, at the think tank Friends of Europe. “People have been parked in ghettos; unemployment is rife. No investment has been made in public infrastructure.”
One resident of Schaerbeek—another “problem” area—who asked to remain anonymous told Newsweek that radicalizers target the disfortunate. “I went to give food to the poor at the Gare du Nord [in Brussels],” he says. “While I was there, a person was going round trying to convince them to go to Syria.”
Those who can resist the extremists’ messages may still turn to petty crime in order to earn an income. If they are caught and sent to prison, experts warn that it is here that some are being radicalized.
The mastermind of the Paris attacks, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, spent time in a Belgian prison where he met, and possibly recruited, Abdeslam. The el-Bakraoui brothers had also spent time behind bars.
Outside Brussels’s Forest prison, Nicolas Cohen, co-president of the monitoring group the International Observatory of Prisons, further explained the problem. “There is no public information on the level of radicalization in Belgian prisons,” he says. “We know that they are looking for it; prison authorities have asked the guards and imams to report any sign of it.” In France, which has tried to measure the problem, it is believed that 15 percent of all radicalized people were converted in prison.
But Belgium’s prison authorities are preoccupied with other problems besides extremism. Earlier in March, the human rights organization the Council of Europe published its annual report on European penal systems. It found that Belgium’s prisons were dangerously overcrowded, with 129 inmates per 100 places. Forest is particularly bad, Cohen says: “Everything is broken, everything is rotten. Of the four wings, one has been closed since the end of 2015. Some prisoners are sleeping on mattresses on the floor of cells.”
Though authorities are supposed to keep prisoners accused of terrorist activities separate from the rest of the prison population, it is easier said than done. “All the Belgian prisons have a problem with radicalization,” says Denis Bosquet, president of the Oversight Commission of Forest Prison. “Authorities think it is impossible for the radicals to communicate. All they think about when they’re in isolated cells is how to make contact.”
While these young men, and it is almost exclusively young men, make prime targets for radicalization—be they unemployed, in jail or angry at their socioeconomic standing—Belgium has also suffered from extremism as a result of its policing and governance systems.
In Brussels alone, six police forces protect the capital, Massart says. Government is split at a communal, state and federal level, while each section has a French-speaking and Flemish-speaking department. Unsurprisingly, facilitating effective communication between the various levels and departments can prove challenging.
“We need greater coordination to make sure every level is addressed by the right power,” says Serge Stroobants, the Brussels representative for the Institute for Economics and Peace, a think tank.
But, Massart says, communication isn’t the only problem. “I think there’s been a failure at government level to stop radical groups from recruiting,” she says. “[Security services] don’t have the necessary resources—Arabic speakers, people who speak the language of the communities where these extremists come from,” she adds.
In the aftermath of the Brussels attacks, intelligence agents—speaking anonymously—have said that their departments are underfunded and understaffed. Alain Winants, head of the Belgian intelligence service from 2006 until 2014, said Belgium was one of the last countries in Europe to buy modern intelligence-gathering tools such as phone taps.
Belgian security services, stymied by bureaucracy and shoestring budgets, say there is a desperate need for greater coordination between EU nations to counter extremism. At the moment, Massart says, a small international database exists between nations, but it is not comprehensive enough.
“I don’t think this problem is too big to solve,” adds Stroobants. “But what Europe needs to do is become a more integrated continent, working better on a daily basis.”
This seems particularly important given the clear links between the Brussels and Paris attackers. Khalid el-Bakraoui, one of the Brussels bombers, rented a house in the southwestern suburb of Forest for Abdeslam. Police also found DNA of three of the Paris gunmen and a possible suspect in the Brussels assaults, Najim Laachraoui, in the same apartment in Schaerbeek.
“This is a problem that everyone faces,” says Massart, referring to attacks in Madrid in 2004, London in 2005 and Paris in 2015. “We have to look outside Belgium and work more closely with the rest of Europe.”
The problems that Belgium faces are many and varied—and security officials know that the fight is far from over. Three days after the attacks, the terrorist threat level in Brussels remained at its highest, with police warning that more assaults could follow.
Staving off another tragedy, Massart says, will require government investment into deprived communities and intelligence services as well as fundamental changes to its functioning and how security services operate. “We’re in this for the long haul,” she says. “Our citizens need to be as protected as possible, and that means stopping the breeding of extremism.”