Why Belgium? Why now?

REUTERS/Francois Lenoir
Belgium has been trying to get a handle on its jihadi problem for years.

Imagine a small, prosperous country that has been a destination of immigrants for decades. It’s a country willing to make them citizens, but unable to create nearly enough jobs for them. It struggles with a chronically weak government and a capital city divided into a bewildering number of jurisdictions, policed by multiple agencies.

You would be describing a place where you have a decent chance of evading attention by burrowing deep into an immigrant community; where terrorists might have the time to hatch plots; where the disillusioned sons of migrants might be drawn to violent adventures that seem to give meaning to their lives.

You might be describing any of several European countries, but if you were making a ranking of places with those characteristics, Belgium would be at the top of the list.

The scenes from Brussels on Tuesday were as saddening as they were familiar. Two explosions at Zaventem airport and one at a Metro station killed at least 31 people and wounded hundreds. The Islamic State terror group claimed responsibility, and warned that more was coming.

After Paris and San Bernardino, they were a reminder that you can’t really consider anywhere to be totally safe. But they also posed familiar questions: Why here? Why now?

Belgium has long been recognized as a weak link in Europe’s effort to crack down on jihadi networks. It’s not that the police there are incompetent. They’ve had their successes. Just four days earlier, they captured Salah Abdeslam, the last major suspect wanted in the Paris attacks last November. But there are serious questions whether they should have been better prepared for a response after they picked up Abdeslam. A figure no less than the prime minister, Charles Michel, said Tuesday that what officials feared had come to pass.

So, if authorities were worried about retaliation, shouldn’t someone have noticed the two guys, each wearing a black glove on only their left hand (the speculation now is that it might have hid a detonator) who were pushing carts around the airport Tuesday morning?

It’s likely that Belgian authorities have been simply overwhelmed. Look at the list in this Guardian article of Belgian connections with terror plots. It starts with the assassination of Ahmad Shah Massoud, the most prominent anti-Taliban leader, in Afghanistan just days before the Sept. 11 attacks and continues through the attacks in Paris last January and November. 

As the Guardian makes clear, far and away more people per capita have left Belgium than any other major European country to fight for jihadi groups in Syria and Iraq. Some die there. Some are still there. But according to one estimate, half of those who come back are thought to be potentially violent.

As Germany’s Der Spiegel notes, Belgium has been trying to get a handle on the problem for years. But even Germany, with many more police and intelligence assets, is hard pressed to keep up.

This matters a lot to the rest of Europe. Der Spiegel points out that Abdeslam is thought by investigators to have used the continent’s open borders to drive to Hungary and Germany last year to pick up accomplices. Paris, in particular, has been a target. 

Why does Belgium struggle so much with this?

A lot of people have been looking for answers. Here are a few of them, courtesy of Foreign Policy and Politico:

  • According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), nowhere in the European Union is the employment gap between natives and foreign-born as high as it is in Belgium. The unemployment rate in the Brussels neighborhood of Molenbeek, where Abdeslam hid out and was finally captured, officially is 30% — and probably much, much higher for young people. Experts say there are few jobs for people who don’t speak both of Belgium’s languages, French and Dutch, or have a university degree. That excludes most Muslim youth. That’s not a guarantee they’ll go fight in Syria, or go on a shooting spree in Europe. But some clearly do.
  • The segregation of society creates neighborhoods where jihadis can quite easily be hidden by accomplices, families or friends.
  • The national government struggles to reconcile the aspirations of Belgium’s Dutch-speaking Flemish population and the French-speaking Walloons, leaving it chronically unstable – and presumably interrupting both funding and a consistent approach to critical problems like intelligence work. Plus, Brussels is a bureaucratic nightmare. According to the Belgian interior minister, Jan Jambon, the city is divided into 19 districts, each with its own mayor. And the city alone has six different police departments. 

Even so, Belgium itself had largely managed to escape unscathed until Tuesday. There was an attack on the Jewish museum in Brussels in 2014 that killed four people. Perhaps it has been too valuable as a logistics and planning venue. Plus, Paris is easily reachable from Brussels, and an attack on a major European power (one with a strong military and intelligence services) is likely to garner more attention.

Officials are now trying to figure out who, exactly, was behind Tuesday’s attacks and who, exactly, carried them out. It’s likely the bombings were planned well before Abdeslam was picked up. Most experts think they simply were too sophisticated to have been pulled together after he was arrested. However, it’s very possible the timing was moved up to retaliate.

There seems to be an ample supply of potential attackers, capable of acting independently of the Islamic State’s commanders in the Middle East. It’s virtually impossible to say where or when they will try to strike next.  And though police and intelligence agencies will break up many of those attacks — they will not be able to stop all of them.

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Comments (10)

  1. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 03/23/2016 - 12:24 pm.

    While it may be comforting (or not) to think that there is a master-mind directing Islamic terrorism, it is more than likely, loosely interrelated small groups (even intra-family—think of the Boston marathon bombing and 2 of the Brussels actors were brothers). Central coordination is probably minimal and only the goals of death, destruction and disruption in the service of their interpretation of what god demands.

    Without the introduction of an extremely oppressive totalitarian state that intrudes into the closest relationship, it quite likely that this type of action will be a feature of our future.

    Cruz and Trump may want to increase police actions in US “Muslim” neighborhoods, but given the fact that the preparations for these events involve the entirely legal purchases of weapons and precursors away from the neighborhoods, and indoctrination, plans and coordination can be brought in with an encrypted internet connection, and final preparations aren’t made in the vacant lot on the corner–Patrolman Duffy wandering the streets, swinging a billy club ain’t going to provide more security. And steps beyond that, such as taking the police into the living rooms of people who happen to live in a neighborhood is the first step to a very oppressive police state. In a way, is it surprising that the people who complain the most about oppressive government are the most eager to begin down that road at the first sign of trouble ?

  2. Submitted by Jim Million on 03/23/2016 - 01:09 pm.


    Why forever?

    For several centuries Belgium has been the most overrun country of Europe, caught between history’s usual warring suspects. When considering Belgium, one must also recognize France, Germany, Russia, Great Britain, even the U.S.

    Napoleon marched boldly there toward Moscow, and likewise limped back home. WW I was no small Sunday outing, either. As for WW II, who has not heard of The Siege of Bastogne, Battle of the Bulge?

    So, Belgium became the seat of Peace (what other choice?), home first to NATO, now also to the EU Parliament.

    This is very simple triangulation: From the Arab/ISIS/Daesh perspective, Brussels represents the aggregation of old colonial powers blamed for much of modern Middle East dysfunction. As if that would not be enough, Brussels is NATO in that same view–NATO, the U.S. led enforcer of the present, perceived to be protecting the colonial perpetrators of the past.

    Why Brussels? Why not Brussels??

  3. Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 03/23/2016 - 08:52 pm.

    Decisions to make

    What strange questions the author asks! A simple answer is “just because.” For Islamic terrorists there is no difference – NY, LA, London, Paris, Brussels, Jerusalem, Stockholm, Copenhagen… wherever it works. And interesting twist here is that Abdeslam was arrested a few days before this and admitted that he was in the process of preparation for another terrorist act. So wouldn’t it be appropriate to threaten him with torture to make his say who the next terrorists would be? I am sure those who died or suffered and their families would definitely say yes.

    • Submitted by Neal Rovick on 03/24/2016 - 08:25 am.

      Torture ?It always worked in

      Torture ?

      It always worked in TV and movies–why not in the real world ? Let’s ignore what the experts say, and go with the TV script.

      I guess people who are bent on suicide bombings have a somewhat different understanding of martyrdom than you do.

      Slippery slope Mr. Gutman. A tool of policing is easily extended to other areas. Torture would work extremely well on tax evaders who are determined to live a better life without being bent on martyrdom. Imagine how a fingernail or two would get you to “find” that missing 1099.

      • Submitted by Jim Million on 03/24/2016 - 08:57 am.


        the “mental torture” of once dealing with the draconian pressures of an IRS audit (a very long time ago…whew!!)

        I’m sure Mr. Gutman knows that pulling fingernails last weekend would not have altered events, events that were apparently re-scheduled in response to assumptions of applied tactics he now proposes.

    • Submitted by Jim Million on 03/24/2016 - 08:38 am.

      Timing is everything…

      This is an EU dilemma of failing to keep up, now running to catch up…not unusual failings of European bureaucracy, in this case. Coordination of very many projects remains the challenge of that European experiment in jurisdictional mechanics. Old foundations of national provincialism remain
      at issue in so many considerations.

      All this has become a European “test match” of historic proportion. And, it’s still early innings…

  4. Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 03/24/2016 - 09:22 pm.

    In real life

    A person arrested admitted to planning more attacks and there is high probability (actually, almost for sure) he knew the perpetrators of this week carnage. So all he had to do was to name them and point out where they live. Of course, liberals forever were saying that ticking bomb scenario is not real but this time it was exactly that. Sure, these people are not afraid to die so threatening them with execution would not work; neither was I talking about nail pulling. But waterboarding or sleep deprivation could have helped; in fact even a threat of that could have. Being ready to die is not the same as being ready to suffer. It is interesting how people want to keep high moral ground and win against those who don’t care about any moral but that is mutually exclusive. Those who died and their loved ones would not care about morals if they could live so those who dismiss waterboarding are doing it at someone else’s expense.

    • Submitted by Jim Million on 03/25/2016 - 08:18 am.


      What makes you believe French and Belgian intelligence services do not employ extreme measures in these critical incidents?

      Please never believe American rhetoric applies to European proclivity.

      • Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 03/25/2016 - 06:06 pm.

        Of course I cannot know for sure but I highly doubt that European intelligence services employ any of that tactics now. I am basing my opinion on the general European approach (more liberal than American) and their condemnation of American use of waterboarding.

        • Submitted by Jim Million on 03/27/2016 - 09:51 am.

          Doubt it…

          Public positioning is one thing. European intelligence methods are traditionally more draconian than ours.

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