AMSTERDAM — It was only a matter of time before acts of terror were committed on Belgian soil. France’s little neighbor has become a hotbed of terrorist conspiracies.
Three explosions on Tuesday morning killed more than 20 people at the airport and a busy central Brussels metro station. The nationality of those attackers is unknown but of the eight terrorists who committed the attacks in Paris last November, three have strong links to Belgium.
Two of them were French citizens and brothers living (and born) in the Molenbeek suburb in northwest Brussels, a third was a Belgian who left for Syria a year ago. The first brother is called Brahim Abdeslam, who killed himself using an explosive belt in a café at the Rue Voltaire. A second brother, Mohamed Abdeslam, was arrested on suspicion of involvement in the plot but has since been released. The third was Salah Abdeslam, 26, who was arrested in Molenbeek after a dramatic shootout last week.
“There is a link to Molenbeek,” Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel said soon after the Paris attacks. “We are focused on prevention but we need to act repressively, too.”
The prime minister promised the Belgian people extra measures against jihadis returning to Belgium from the Syrian and Iraqi battlefields. Knowing the scale of the Belgian problem, implementing the right measures is paramount, not just for the Belgians themselves but also for their neighboring countries.
One Belgian in Syria who has been linked to the attacks is Abdelhamid Abaaoud, 27, from Molenbeek.
French officials have told the Associated Press and The New York Times that he is the suspected mastermind of the Paris attacks, although the Belgian public prosecutor has dismissed those links as “rumors.”
For a while Abaaoud was assumed dead after pictures apparently showed his body. It is now believed that he had staged his death. According to Belgian national newspaper De Standaard, all of the arrested suspects in Molenbeek in the last few days have ties to Abaaoud.
Last year, Abaaoud is believed to have taken his 13-year-old brother Younes to Syria—making him Belgium’s youngest known jihadi.
Links are uncovered between jihadi operations and Belgian terrorist cells with increasing frequency, raising serious questions about the Belgian government’s ability to deal with terrorists who use the country for recruiting and support networks.
Belgium, wedged in between Germany, Luxembourg, The Netherlands, and France, has brought forth a disproportionate amount of jihadis. “The maximum number of Belgians who at one point were active in Syria or Iraq has climbed to 516,” Belgian Arabist and author Pieter van Ostaeyen said on his blog last month. Van Ostayen has been keeping a close eye on developments within Belgian minority groups vulnerable to radicalization. The number of jihadis, put into context, becomes quite alarming. “This number means that out of Belgium’s Muslim population of about 640,000 individuals, there is roughly one per 1,260 who has been involved in jihad in Syria and Iraq. At this point Belgium is, per capita, by far the European nation contributing the most to the foreign element in the Syrian war.”
Belgium is a small country with, sometimes, big problems. It even went without a cohesive government for a record 541 days in 2010 and 2011. Being a largely divided Flemish/French-speaking society to begin with, it had problems integrating its newcomers. Its second- and third-generation immigrants on average made little socio-economic progress, or had little chance to do so. Meanwhile, the security services in the city of Brussels have another significant issue: For a population of 1.3 million inhabitants, the local police force is divided up in six police corps spread over 19 boroughs. Sharing security information in that setting could only be complicated.
When one puts into a timeline the number of attacks in Western Europe over the past two years and their relation to Belgium, it becomes apparent just how much of an outsized role the country is playing:
• On May 24, 2014: An attack on the Jewish museum in Brussels killed four—an Israeli couple, a French, and a Belgian employee of the museum were shot dead by French ex-Syria jihadi Mehdi Nemmouche.
• On Jan. 13, 2015: The weapons used in the Jan. 7 Charlie Hebdo attack were traced back to the Brussels train station Bruxelles Midi, where they had reportedly been bought from a local arms trader by Amedy Coulibaly, who had committed an attack on a Jewish supermarket days later, on Jan. 9.
• On the evening of Jan. 14: Belgian police searched several houses in the boroughs of Verviers, unrelated to the recent Paris attacks. They arrested a group that had planned terrorist attacks in Belgium, federal police spokesperson Eric van der Sypt said. “During the search warrant in Verviers, certain suspects immediately opened fire with automatic weapons at the special police forces, they opened fire for several minutes before being neutralized. Two of the suspects were killed, a third one was arrested.”
The suspects were known jihadis who had returned from Syria in the previous month. The Belgian secret service believed they were about to carry out an attack on a police station and called in special forces.
• On Aug. 23: The man who tried to commit a terrorist attack on board the Thalys train says he found his Kalashnikov and the ammunition in a park near Brussels Midi. The Moroccan Ayoub El Kahzzani got on the train at the Brussels station and initiated the attack shortly afterward.
• On Friday, Nov. 13: At least two French terrorists living in Brussels traveled to Paris to cause carnage in the heart of the city. The killing spree took the lives of 130 and injured hundreds.
It’s difficult to pinpoint the exact reasons Belgium, and more specifically the borough of Molenbeek, is leading the charts when it comes to jihadism. After all, The Netherlands, along Belgium’s northern border, has relatively large numbers of jihadis, too.
But the fact that Molenbeek is a poor and socially isolated area certainly doesn’t help. Some parliamentary members call Molenbeek mono-cultural, because it predominantly has inhabitants of Moroccan descent. But a contributing factor in monitoring different “risk groups” in Brussels could be its scattered police force.
In international relations, especially with the French, it may call into question the sense of free and unguarded travel for Europeans cross border, as the repercussions could be fast and furious.
Editor’s note: The original version of this story was published in November last year.