Corrupt and fragmented Belgium a breeding ground for extremism
Published 23/03/2016 | 02:30
The explosions in Brussels are sickening and shocking, even if we residents sensed that they were coming.
In the wake of November’s attacks in Paris, it seemed that the whole world discovered that Belgium was a breeding ground for radical jihadism. The security lockdown in Brussels that famously followed those attacks was not just an admission of the links between the perpetrators of the Bataclan and Stade de France massacres and Belgium. It was also a public declaration that Brussels was a target – and that the city’s luck could not hold forever.
Brussels had, until now, escaped lightly, by the crude arithmetic of death-counts. Four people were shot dead at the Jewish museum in Brussels in May 2014, but the incident faded quickly from the public memory, partly because the alleged perpetrator was picked up very shortly afterwards in Marseille.
After that, the drama moved elsewhere, though generally with a link to the Belgian capital. The weapons used in the Charlie Hebdo attacks had come from Brussels. The man who was overpowered on a Thalys high-speed train in France had links to Belgium. In Verviers, an old industrial town in the east of Belgium, the security services shot dead jihadists who, it was said, were planning attacks on those who distributed Charlie Hebdo. The dead men, it transpired, came from the Molenbeek suburb of Brussels. Since these recent attacks, a picture has emerged of how terrorist networks put down roots in Belgium – a country with the unenviable record of the highest relative numbers of people going off to Syria to fight and then return home.
This relatively modern development came on top of older Belgian problems – corruption and nepotism in public service (resulting in a lack of confidence in the police and the judicial system); the fragmentation of police forces and city government; and tolerance of low-level criminality.
Belgium’s long-running tensions between different language groups complicate any attempts to improve public administration. The trend of the last 30 years has been to devolve power down to the three regions – Dutch-speaking Flanders in the north, francophone Wallonia in the south, and the bilingual Brussels region in the centre – but that leaves Brussels underfunded to address the pockets of poverty where Islamic radicalism breeds, and the federal government short of staff and money to tackle, for example, radicalisation in the prisons. It doesn’t help that the political culture in Belgium is overly respectful of the various layers of authority – boroughs, regions, federal government – and the linguistic divisions between them. In hindsight, one can see the federal or regional authorities should have stepped in long ago to sort out Molenbeek, but that goes against a deeply ingrained tradition of respecting local power-bases.
Effective counter-terrorism, on the other hand, requires efficient liaison between all arms of the state, gathering good intelligence and convey it to the right place. Belgium has some good technology and some highly skilled people at the centre, but they sit on top of a pyramid, whose base is low-skill and low-tech.
The arrest of Salah Abdeslam was a moment of rare public success for the Belgian security services. They had caught alive one of the alleged participants in the Paris attacks – albeit after four months of delay – with every prospect of bringing him to trial.
The country breathed a collective sigh of relief – and basked just a little in that congratulatory phone call to Prime Minister Charles Michel from President Barack Obama. The capture of Abdeslam clearly put Belgium in the frontline, but could not in itself redress the country’s longer-term problems or reduce Brussels’ vulnerability to attack. Brussels residents are not accustomed to a terrorist threat. These attacks will prove a brutal awakening. (© Daily Telegraph, London)