Attacks expose Belgium’s fractured core

Reuters, 31.3.2016.

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Five days before the March 22 bombings in Brussels, the most wanted man in Europe, Salah Abdeslam, was arrested in the city’s Molenbeek neighborhood. The arrest of Abdeslam, the lone surviving suspect from the Paris attacks in November, is thought to be the catalyst for the bombings that killed 31 people — and brought renewed attention to the lack of intelligence-gathering among EU nations.


Belgium has been a repeated target for Islamic State attacks because it’s the home of the European Union and NATO, but also because the European wing of Islamic State has flourished inside its borders. Brussels is a city of contrasts, of northern European wealth without the state institutions or functional infrastructure. Directly behind the historic guildhalls and Beaux Arts buildings are skyscrapers and high-rises built to accommodate the swell of people who accompanied the installation of the EU and NATO. By 1999, my third year living in Brussels, legislation was passed to prevent the haphazard development and razing of historic landmarks carried out by various disengaged municipal governments. The byzantine structure of the local government, however, remained intact.

In recent years Molenbeek has been portrayed as a haven for jihadists, a pocket of extremism apart from the city’s law-and-order center. It’s not quite that, because there’s no cohesion to Brussels at all. Molenbeek abuts the center of the city, a hub of tourism and home to some of Brussels’ wealthiest neighborhoods including the aristocratic Grand Sablon, with its 16th century real estate. But the Grand Sablon is no more representative of Brussels than Molenbeek: the law-and-order center is a myth.

The radical difference between the two neighborhoods is representative of Belgian politics generally. Belgium is divided linguistically, culturally and politically between the Flemish-speaking north and the French-speaking south. The antagonism between the two is so great the country was unable to form a national government for nearly two years after federal elections in 2010, a world record previously held by Iraq. Though Belgium serves as the hub for multilateral European diplomacy, national politics are mostly handled at a local level thanks to the French-Flemish rift.

Molenbeek, with its large Muslim population (around 40 percent), is among the poorest of Brussels’ 19 districts. The neighborhood’s disaffected youth, for whom unemployment is close to 40 percent, are natural targets for Islamic State recruitment. Molenbeek is unable to reap the benefits of Brussels’ wealth or Belgium’s, which ranked ninth among EU countries by GDP in 2015. The country’s tax base is narrow compared to its European peers, but even if it had the funds, the political divisiveness would likely pose problems for its distribution to needy areas like Molenbeek.

The majority of Brussels’ residents are French-speakers, despite it being the capital of Flanders, the Flemish-speaking part of the country. To combat the rise of extremism in Belgium, the country would need to be more centralized — in its distribution of resources and its information-sharing. But the possibility of coordination across linguistic lines is unlikely even in Brussels, where the Flemish Interior Minister can’t get the city’s French population to cooperate.

In 2004, Brussels was heaven for a 16-year-old. You could get into pubs for a beer with pals and there were tame discos and cheap Greek food, all in the small center of town, accessible by bus, train or tram. If you ran out of cash by the end of the evening, you could still hop on the last metro and hope there were no cops on board enforcing the ticket-punch honor system. The ticketing system was odd — it was either an ineffective way to foster trust within the city (the possibility of cops on board), or it was an extremely expensive version of a “stop and frisk” program. (Fare-dodging cost the city 16.5 million euros in 2012, before the Metro installed gates in 2014.) The transit system was a façade of a functional, centrally-organized economy, but dysfunctional, disjointed and disconnected under the surface.

The failure of coordination in Brussels is particularly notable after last week’s attacks, which were a triumph of coordination between Islamic State extremists in Syria, France and Belgium. On Thursday Turkey said that it deported the Brussels attacker Ibrahim El Bakraoui in 2015 and that Belgium had subsequently ignored a warning that the man was a militant. Faced with the mobilized, connected, international network of Islamic State extremists, Belgium’s first recourse must be to coordinate — on social policy to lift neighborhoods like Molenbeek out of poverty, and on international policy, to share information about known and active security threats.