European Politics / Terrorism

Why Belgium?


ISIS has claimed responsibility for separate explosions in Brussel’s Zaventem airport and a central metro station that killed 34 and wounded over 200.  It is the latest in a series of terrorist attacks occurring within or originating from Belgium that includes:

  • May 2014: Attack on the Brussell’s Jewish museum (4 killed);
  • Jan 2015: Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris that killed (12 killed); and
  • Nov. 2015: Paris terrorist attack (130 killed)

This has people asking – why Belgium?

Brussels is the Capital of Europe

Belgium and its capital Brussels are an obvious target, in part due to the fact that it is, in essence, the capital of Europe.  Brussels is the home to:

  • the European Commission, Council of the European Union, the European Council, as well as a seat (officially the second seat but de facto the most important one) of the European Parliament;
  • NATO headquarters; and
  • Regional offices for the United Nations, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

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Belgium is also an attractive host for terrorism as it is strategically located between France, Holland, Germany and Switzerland.  In addition, since it is only about the size of Maryland, its borders are never more than forty minutes away.

Add to the mix, Belgium’s long reputation as a center for European arms trade and lax gun laws.  As the BBC reports,

For centuries the country has been a major producer and exporter of firearms. Moreover, until 2006 it had quite liberal domestic gun legislation, making the country a European hot spot for the arms trade, including for people with bad intentions.

Belgium is Barely a Country

It is not mere geography, however, that has brought Belgium to this dark hour.  Belgium is an odd amalgam of Dutch and French communities with several German communities laced in between. CapX explains that,

Belgium is, so to speak, a mini-EU, a multi-national state whose political system is held together largely by public spending. There is no Belgian language, no Belgian culture, no Belgian history. The country is divided between a Dutch-speaking north, containing some 60 per cent of the population, and a French-speaking south. The two communities read separate newspapers, watch separate TV, vote for separate parties. To adapt René Magritte, one of those elusive famous Belgians, ceci n’est pas un pays.

To placate each community, the Belgians created an insanely complex system of decentralized government in which the country is divided into (i) three territories – Flanders (in the Dutch-speaking north), Wallonia (in the French-speaking south), and Brussels with and (ii) three language communities (only portions of which are bilingual).

Brussels is a city of 1.2 million people and it has not one, but six different police agencies. These agencies answer to 19 different municipal mayors who are often political rivals.

Belgium’s divisions contribute to the current situation in many ways.  First, as Vox points, however, how can outsiders integrate into a country which itself refuses to integrate?

One is that the preoccupation with ethnic and linguistic division makes it difficult for immigrants and their descendants to integrate into Belgian society. All across Europe, nations that have defined themselves in terms that are more ethnic than civic have found assimilation more challenging than in the United States and other settler societies like Canada and Australia.

Brussels is the Jihadist Capital of Europe

Muslim’s account for about seven (7) percent of Belgium’s population and are mostly made up of second-generation Turks and Moroccans, as well as sub-Saharan Africans, whose grandparents emigrated to work in Belgian factories during an economic boom in the 1960s.  That boom has ended.

Belgium has done a poor job in integrating its Muslim community.  Belgium has the EU’s highest gap in employment rates between the foreign-born and native population, according to the OECD. One authority told the Financial Times that Belgium has “made terrible mistakes in integration — and now they have something that is difficult to control”.

Michael Privot, Director of the Brussels-based European Network Against Racism, told The National that

“When you look at the Muslim community, by and large, they are underprivileged,” says Mr Privot, who is a convert to Islam. “Half of the families which have a Moroccan or Turkish background are living just at the poverty line or below the poverty line. That really is huge and gives you an idea of the situation of these communities and how far they really are from the mainstream.” . . .

“There is not only disenfranchisement economically speaking – access to jobs, to housing, education, a future – but Belgian Muslims do not fit into the national conversation when it comes to decisions being made about their lives,” he says. “We have schools forbidding head scarves, we have austerity programmes which are affecting this group the most, and there is a growing feeling that Muslims are not a part of the social fabric of this country.”

This may be exacerbated by the fact that Belgium’s Islamic experience is different from its neighbors.  Unlike other European countries, Belgium suffers from a lack of local imams.  The Guardian reports that, as a result,

most its imams have been imported from abroad or educated there. Belgian security services point to an important religious influence from Wahhabi Islam, “sponsored” by Saudi Arabia through the Grand Mosque in Brussels.

This may be a contributing factor as to why Belgium has the highest rate of jihadists of any European country.   Approximately 516 Belgians (or roughly 1 per 1,260 Muslims) have joined the fight in Syria, compared to 800 from Germany which is 8 times larger in population.  About 85 of those have come from Brussels’ infamous Molenbeek district.

An anonymous Belgian Muslim told CNN: “They fill us with hate, and they say we aren’t of any use, so when young people see what’s going on over there [in Syria], they think ‘Well OK, let’s go there and be useful.'”

Is Belgium the “Failed State” of the West?

The country is badly divided and each ethnic group is distrustful of the others.  In 2010-11, the nation went 20 months without a government – the  longest-ever wait for a government in history – as no side was capable of forming a majority.

Belgium’s internal divisions are impeding its ability to respond effectively to the jihadist threat.  Spiegel reports:

Jan Flambon, the country’s Flemish interior minister, has called for the six police authorities in the greater Brussels area to be merged in response to the Paris terror attacks, but he’s unlikely to succeed. “That’s a Flemish fantasy,” sneers Ahmed El Kahnnouss, the deputy municipal mayor of Molenbeek, who says that the French-speaking areas insist on francophone police, in accordance with the country’s traditional principle of communal autonomy.

The government is also being criticized for doing little to monitor those jihadists who return to Belgium.

In a damning piece calling Belgium a “failed state”, Politico reported that

It was revealed after the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January that the Belgian secret service had a shortfall of 150 intelligence officers on a desired complement of 750 (so few!). This week it was disclosed that 42 people had been recruited, but their training would take another two years. The consequences of that understaffing are dribbling out, with further disclosures about information on the Paris attackers that was not passed on or pulled together.

This failure to connect is a feature of the Belgian state. The machinery that elsewhere would link local, regional and national is not joined up. To a large extent, the political class has come to terms with these dysfunctionalities, accepting them as a price that has to be paid for various linguistic and factional divisions.

To its credit, Belgian authorities did arrest Salah Abdelslam, one of the Paris attackers, in Molenbeek last week and reports are that they also have captured airport bombing suspect Najim Laachraoui.

In addition, President Obama’s first Ambassador to Belgium, Howard Gutman, rejects the argument that Belgium is a failed state but warns that these events will harm Belgium’s reputation.

Failed state or not, Brussels is now the European capital of one more political struggle – the war against ISIS.

Further Reading

Kristof Clerix, Why are terrorists drawn to Belgium?, The Guardian (Nov. 17, 2015)

Erin Conroy, Social exclusion leaves Belgium ripe for extremism, The National (Jan. 25, 2015)

Nadette De Visser, Belgium Is Europe’s Terror Hotbed, Daily Beast (Mar. 22, 2016)

Nils Duquet, Paris attacks: Is Belgium Europe’s favourite gun shop?, BBC News (Nov. 15, 2015)

Nima Elbagir, Bharati Naik and Laila Ben Allal, Belgium: Europe’s front line in the war on terror, CNN (Mar. 22, 2016)

David Graham, What’s the Matter With Belgium? The small nation has become a major source of violent jihadists, both in Syria and Iraq and also inside Europe, The Atlantic (Nov. 17, 2015)

Daniel Hannan, Belgium is a failed state, CapX (Nov. 26, 2015)

Joshua Keating, Why There Are So Many Jihadists in Belgium, Slate (Jan. 15, 2015)

Tim King, Belgium is a failed state: Brussels’ nest of radicalism is just one of the failings of a divided, dysfunctional country, Politico (Dec. 2, 2015)

Matt Olchawa, From Brussels to Sarajevo: Why Belgium and Bosnia and Herzegovina Are Home to Islamic terrorists, Huffington Post (Nov. 15, 2015)

Christian Oliver and Duncan Robinson, Paris attacks: Belgium’s arms bazaar, Financial Times (Nov. 19, 2015)

Diana Pearl, Why Brussels? How the Belgian Capital Became a Hotbed of Terrorism in Europe, People (Mar. 22, 2016)

Duncan Robinson, Paris attacks: Belgium forced to confront homegrown jihadis, Financial Tiems (Nov. 15, 2015)

Erin Conroy, Social exclusion leaves Belgium ripe for extremism, The National (Jan. 25, 2015)


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