Inside Belgium's jihadi problem
How did a tiny nation at the heart of the EU become a hub for Islamic terrorism?
How did a tiny nation at the heart of the EU become a hub for Islamic terrorism? Here's everything you need to know:
What's gone wrong in Belgium?
The country has now been tied to all three of the most recent major terrorist attacks on European soil. The Charlie Hebdo killers got their guns from Belgium; the ISIS-inspired Paris attackers who slaughtered 130 people in November plotted that massacre in Belgium; and now, Belgian-born terrorists have struck in their own country — killing 35 people and injuring more than 300 in the capital, Brussels, on March 22. A toxic combination of dysfunctional government, mass immigration, and lax security has allowed parts of this nation of just 11.2 million people to become hotbeds of Islamic extremism, particularly the Brussels neighborhood of Molenbeek. Security officials fear it's just a matter of time before Belgian terrorists launch their next assault — either in Belgium, or only a short drive away in Paris, Frankfurt, or Amsterdam. "The situation was left to rot too long," says counterterrorism expert Claude Moniquet, "and we let radical Islamists take control."
How large is Belgium's Muslim population?
There are about 640,000 Muslims living in the country — many of them second- and third-generation descendants of Moroccan and Turkish immigrants brought over as cheap labor in the 1960s. Belgium has made little effort to assimilate these immigrants; the country's own national culture is fractured, with deep linguistic and ideological divisions between its Dutch-speaking Flemish and French-speaking Walloons. Immigrants were actually encouraged to form their own insulated urban enclaves. When factories began closing in the 1970s, unemployment, poverty, and alienation set in. Today, the grandchildren of Muslim immigrants still feel estranged from their own country, and a small but dangerous minority have turned to crime and Islamist extremism. "You have so many people who are adrift and decide terrorism is a shortcut to paradise," said Spanish counterterrorism prosecutor Dolores Delgado. "It gives them a chance to get revenge on society."
Who recruits them?
Radical street preachers with extremist groups such as Sharia4Belgium. These recruiters wander through poor North African neighborhoods, telling disaffected young men they're being discriminated against because they're Muslims and encouraging them to fight with jihadist groups in the Middle East. Per capita, Belgium has provided the highest number of ISIS recruits in the Western world, with about 560 Belgians waging jihad in Iraq and Syria. At first, Belgian counterterrorism officials were actually happy to see these young extremists leave. But as the Western coalition battling ISIS has eroded the group's territory in Iraq and Syria, its young European fighters have pivoted toward their home countries as a new battleground. About 120 Belgian jihadists have returned, and their mission is terrorist attacks, intelligence officials say.
How is Belgium responding?
Its security forces have proved to be amazingly dysfunctional. When suspected Paris attacker Salah Abdeslam, a Belgian national, slipped back over the border into Belgium after the siege, it took counterterrorism officials four months to locate the most wanted man in Europe — even though he was living in Molenbeek, yards from his childhood home. After his capture, Politicoreported last week, intelligence officials questioned Abdeslam for only one hour over four days. Belgium's security forces are small in number, and have been overwhelmed by the extremist threat. "Frankly, we don't have the infrastructure to properly investigate hundreds of individuals suspected of terror links," one anonymous counterterrorism official told BuzzFeed. Belgium's government, meanwhile, is paralyzed by division and bureaucracy.
Why is the government so divided?
Belgium is essentially three distinct regions glued together: Dutch-speaking Flanders in the North, French-speaking Wallonia in the South, and Brussels-Capital. Each of these regions has its own overlapping and labyrinthine government. The city of Brussels, for example, has 19 different municipalities and six different police departments. Officials engage in constant political infighting, making it difficult to organize a cohesive counterterrorism response. Molenbeek Mayor Françoise Schepmans has admitted that a month before the Paris attacks, she was given a list with the names and addresses of more than 80 suspected Islamic militants in her area but failed to act. "What was I supposed to do about them?" Schepmans said. "It is not my job to track down possible terrorists."
Can Belgium adapt?
Money is now being poured into Belgium's overwhelmed security apparatus, and the intelligence services are trying to recruit more Arabic-speaking analysts for surveillance efforts. Security officials have also called for the EU to do a much better job of sharing information about potential terrorists. But the best way to tackle Belgium's homegrown problem is to prevent radicalization in the first place, says Yves Goldstein, cabinet chief to the Brussels regional president. That would require integrating ghettos like Molenbeek into Belgian society; diversifying the schools; and bringing in new cafés, businesses, and cultural offerings. "We need to open the minds of these young people," says Goldstein. "What can we do to manage young people who prefer death to life?"
Molenbeek: Europe's jihadi capital
Filled with kebab shops and teahouses, the largely Moroccan Brussels neighborhood of Molenbeek has become the heart of a terrorist network that has caused carnage across Europe. The district — with a population of 100,000 — was home to several of the Paris attackers, as well as other terrorist suspects. High school dropout and youth unemployment rates in Molenbeek are among the highest in all of Belgium, and radical preachers hang out in cafés and mosques in the area, trying to persuade these disaffected young men and women to embrace Islamist extremism as a source of meaning and glory. Many of the young recruits are already involved in crime. And when Belgian Muslims do turn to extremism, they are often protected from the authorities by their neighbors. "When you do a raid on a house, in normal areas people talk or help if they think someone was a terrorist," says Belgian federal prosecutor Eric Van der Sypt. "People are not collaborating in Molenbeek. They are throwing stones at the police."