AMSTERDAM — As the race to discover how terrorists managed to carry out such devastating attacks in Paris continues, the focus has shifted to France’s little neighbor, Belgium, as a hotbed of terrorist conspiracies. And this isn't the first time.
Of the eight terrorists who committed the attacks in Paris, three have strong links to Belgium.
Two of them were French citizens and brothers living (and born) in the Molenbeek suburb in north-west 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 cafe at the Rue Voltaire. The second is Salah Abdeslam, 26, who is on the run with an international arrest warrant issued for him. A third brother, Mohamed Abdeslam, was arrested on suspicion of involvement in the plot but has since been released
A third attacker has been identified as 20-year-old Bilal Hadfi. Hadfi blew himself up outside the soccer match between France and Germany at the Stade de France.
“There is a link to Molenbeek,” Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel said. “We are focused on prevention but we need to act repressively, too.”
The prime minister promised the Belgian people extra measures against jihadists 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 all 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 jihadist.
Links are uncovered between jihadist 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 jihadists. “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 jihadists, 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.
In connection to Friday’s attacks in Paris, seven suspects were arrested in that Brussels municipality of St Jans Molenbeek on Saturday. “In the direct surroundings of one of the attacks, specifically the Bataclan, a Belgian vehicle was found, with Belgian registration, which had been rented in Belgium,” federal police spokesperson Eric van der Sypt said on Belgian National News. “Based on that information we were able to do the searches and make the arrests.”
According to the Belgian press, inside the car a parking ticket for Molenbeek was found. Yesterday and today, house searches took place in the area. Near a subway station (Ossegem) the Belgian police blocked off a street and special forces searched a car. One suspect who tried to escape was chased, stopped, and arrested.
The person who rented one of the cars used in the Paris attacks was seen crossing the French border yesterday morning. French Public prosecutor François Molins told the press: “We know the car was rented by a French man who lived in Belgium. This morning the man was checked at the Belgian border, in another car, so not the Seat nor the Polo in which two other persons were present, who also lived in Brussels.”
Those men reportedly were arrested by the Belgian police later that day in connection to the Paris attacks. One of the men is said to be the brother of the man who rented the car and is an ex-Syria jihadist and he too rented a car that may be have been used in the Friday attacks.
When one puts into a timeline the number of attacks in Western Europe over the past year and their relation to Belgium, it becomes apparent just how much of an outsized role the country is playing.
• On the 24th of May 2014: Attack on the Jewish museum in the Belgian capital of Brussels leaves four killed: an Israeli couple, a French and a Belgian employee of the museum were shot dead by French ex-Syria jihadist Mehdi Nemmouche.
• On the 13th of January 2015 the weapons used in the Charlie Hebdo attack of Jan. 7 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 committed an attack on a Jewish supermarket days later, on Jan. 9.
• On the evening of the 14th of January, 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 jihadists 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 the 23rd of August, the man who tried to commit a terrorist attack on board the Thalys train says he found his Kalashnikoff 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 the 13th of November 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 life of at least 129 and injured hundreds.
To pinpoint the exact reasons why Belgium and more specifically the borough of Molenbeek is heading the charts when it comes to jihadism, is difficult to say. After all, The Netherlands, along Belgium's northern border, has relatively large numbers of jihadists, 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.