The forces that shape capital cities can often be hard to understand – but Belgium's case may stand alone.
Brussels is the de facto hub of the European Union, as well as hundreds of other international organizations. In a country whose 11.2 million people are divided between Dutch speakers in the north and French speakers in the south, it maintains a mind-boggling bureaucracy to accommodate rival groups. It is officially bilingual, even though two-thirds of the population are either foreign or of recent foreign origin.
Brussels, to many observers, serves as capital of either a dysfunctional continent or a tiny nation with outsized political problems. But jolted by the ease with which the perpetrators of the Paris attacks slipped between their homes in Brussels and the French capital, Europeans are now demanding an answer to a very basic question: What is it about Belgium that has given it an equally outsized role in terrorism?
Belgium has more jihadis per capita who have left to fight with Islamic State in the Middle East than any other nation in Europe. After the Paris rampage, the risk of a similar attack was deemed so high in Brussels that schools and the metro closed down for four days. Officials still haven’t caught Salah Abdeslam, a Frenchman who lived in Molenbeek, the Brussels neighborhood at the center of several recent terror investigations.
There are many reasons terrorists have hailed from here. As is the case across Europe, the marginalization of the Muslim community can open the path toward radicalization. But other answers are specific to this locale. Sandwiched between France, Germany, and the Netherlands, it has been a crucial meeting point for hundreds of years, with a constant flow of people that tests law enforcement. It hosts the headquarters of the EU as well as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, further stretching security forces.
But the root cause most often pointed to is far more banal: the city's complicated bureaucracy, constructed around age-old ethnic-linguistic tensions and known for its inability to accomplish anything quickly. To writer Pascal Verbeken, it is an example of koterij – a Flemish reference to a building style that stacks shack upon shack, with no clear blueprint.
“The system has always worked to a certain extent, but now we see it has come to its limits in this crisis,” he says, suggesting that the blame game in the wake of the attacks might yield some progress. “Perhaps this crisis will push Belgium into more reflections on its identity, now at this moment, because the dysfunctions are so clear.”
Johan Leman, a priest and community leader in Molenbeek, says that the place to start working together to address terrorism is “precisely in Brussels, to show that we may have a model on how to work in Europe.... For some issues, like human trafficking, like jihadism, the only way [for Belgium and Europe] is complete transparency, complete cooperation.”
The path to trouble
Molenbeek’s troubles began well before it was determined to be the zip code for many of those involved in the Paris carnage. From a 2014 attack at a Jewish museum in Brussels to a thwarted one this August on a high-speed train between Amsterdam and Paris, Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel noted heavily: “Almost every time there’s a link with Molenbeek.”
Molenbeek looks like any ethnic neighborhood in Europe, with vibrant tea houses and Moroccan bakeries, as well as an underside of petty and not-so-petty crime. Moroccan and Turkish migrants drawn to industry jobs started settling here in the 1960s at a time when it was dubbed “Little Manchester.”
It has since fallen on harder times. Radicalization here takes root in familiar causes: young people with few job prospects and weak cultural connections are vulnerable to recruiters promising a sense of meaning and even glory. Georges Dallemagne, a center-right opposition member of the federal parliament, blames in particular a hardline brand of Islam that features in many mosques in Belgium that grew from the nation’s ties with Saudi Arabia forged during the oil crisis in the 1970s.
Residents of Molenbeek have been left embittered by a storm of sensational media since Nov. 13. Many refuse to talk to journalists. Asna, a resident originally from Casablanca and who declined to give her last name, says she migrated to Europe to improve the lives of her children. But while her eldest daughter, food shopping with her on a recent day, has fulfilled her dreams by attending university, her son lost interest in school age 15. He now works as a street cleaner, with few opportunities for advancement, a prime risk factor for radicalization. She doubts he would be tempted because she says she raised him as a real Muslim.
“But I’m thinking about returning home, I fear there is no future for him here,” she says, pointing to her three-year-old, sitting in a stroller and nibbling on chocolate.
If this is a common European immigration story, from the segregated banlieues, or suburbs, of Paris to the diverse neighborhoods of London and Amsterdam, Belgium has some peculiarities that intensify the threat of violent action.
Where diplomats – and gun dealers – gather
Chief among them is its status as a hub for the illegal arms market, says Nils Duquet, a researcher at the Flemish Peace Institute, a parliamentary group.
Belgium has a long history of quality gun manufacturing. And that know-how, coupled with lax gun laws that made Belgium an outlier in Europe until 2006, drew criminals here. “We got a reputation for being a place where you could get guns,” Mr. Duquet says.
Such networks thrive because of Belgium’s geography. “It’s the kind of place where everyone has always met in Europe. Napoleon, the Nazis, everybody used to come here,” says Mr. Dallemagne. “The terrorists just do the same.”
Brussels is in fact one of the most important meeting points in the world. Kristof Clerix, an investigative reporter with the news magazine MO* who specializes in security, says it also means that the nation’s state and military intelligence services, which employ about 1,200 officers together, are stretched. They are tracking nearly some 800 people who are currently on the radar for terrorism.
Mr. Clerix argues it is too early to judge security failures until an official inquiry is concluded. If anything, he says, cooperation between Belgium’s security personnel has improved in the past decade, while Europe has a long way to go to fill intelligence gaps between nations.
Still, the capital itself is a victim of a fragmented local police system, organized into six forces, which has roots in Belgium’s old political problems. “You don’t need to be a security expert to know that one unified police zone would make information-sharing better than six zones with six bosses,” Clerix says.
The surrealist effect
Belgium's label as Europe’s most “surrealistic" nation is a reference to the country's connection to the artistic movement, which included 20th century Belgian painter Rene Magritte and his irrational juxtaposition of images. But it applies as well to Belgium’s nationhood since its founding in 1830.
Belgium often can feel like two countries. It is split into two large groups – one of Dutch-speakers of the Flanders region, who make up about 60 percent of the population, and the other of French-speakers in the region of Wallonia – and a small German-speaking one. The regions have always been divided along ideological, linguistic, and social lines.
Philippe Van Parijs, a political economist and philosopher who teaches at the University of Louvain, recently had a guest speaker who was featured on a popular television show in Flanders called “The smartest person in the world.” The lawyer, a household name in the north, was virtually unknown among his Francophone students.
It didn’t surprise him. “There are totally separate media worlds,” he says.
Still, Belgium’s decentralized system has mostly worked. Belgians, apart from enjoying a high standard of living in a largely peaceful society, are proud to say their linguistic and ethnic divides have never been deadly.
“We laboriously through the years … shaped and reshaped these institutions in order to be able to alleviate tensions between the communities,” Mr. Van Parijs says. “It’s not that Flemings and Walloons are more pacific by nature … but our institutions can better cope with potential conflicts.”
But compromise has come at the price of efficiency. After the 2010 elections, the country famously went 541 days without a government. And it’s led to a fracturing of power: Brussels is split into 19 municipalities, each with its own mayor. Police reform consolidated 19 forces into six in Brussels, but many argue it foils a unified fight against terrorism.
"Nobody has the global picture to face this kind of problem. There should be one single pilot for a global strategy on radicalism and terrorism,” lawmaker Dallemagne says.
'All European countries are complicated'
Like almost all Belgians, Mark Eyskens, a former Belgian foreign minister, has defended the country both from criticism that it is Europe’s terrorist weak link and that its institutional framework is to blame. A provocative opinion piece in Politico titled “Belgium is a failed state” he dismissed as unduly sensational. “Of course we are a complicated country, but all European countries are complicated,” he says.
But Flemish Interior Minister Jan Jambon and other politicians blame French-speaking Socialists who they say have been too tolerant of radicalism brewing among Muslims, while French-speakers resist calls to consolidate powers in Brussels, says Mr. Verbeken.
While he says he sees no signs that the blame-game will end, the threat of terror could ultimately prove unifying. “All of a sudden that old animosity between French-speaking and Dutch-speaking seems to be less important, because there is a more important danger," he says.
Forging a sense of civic pride?
The multilingual Van Parijs is also trying to get beyond old political problems – at least in the capital.
Brussels is still organized institutionally around its two main linguistic groups. But the one-third of ancient Belgians who comprise the country are rapidly shrinking as a group, while the foreign presence grows.
For the past 10 years, Van Parijs has tried to overcome these contradictions by forging a civic patriotism in the city. The work consists of everything from advocating for a multilingual city to fighting for pedestrianized streets and bike lanes.
“I strongly believe that is the future, the identification with a place,” he says. “Wherever you come from, whatever your mother tongue is, whatever your religion is, you chose to come to this place, and you are now choosing to stay in this place.”
After Molenbeek was thrust into the global limelight for its ties to terrorism, Van Parijs, who grew up there, joined a neighborhood march to express respect for the community – an example of the kind of action he says creates allegiance to a place “you’d want your children to stay, which entails both rights and obligations,” he says. “Thinking about Brussels in terms of two groups has become increasingly surrealistic.”
Some might argue the same is true for Belgium as a whole.
Catherine Van Rysselberghe-Tummers, an administrative worker in Brussels, says she thinks it is long overdue that Belgian citizens get over their differences. Asked if she’s a Dutch speaker or French speaker, she answers in English, “I’m Belgian.”
“This has been a mess for 200 years,” she says .“How many Depaul families in Flanders or Van-somethings are there in Wallonia? We must forget Flemish or Walloon, we are Belgian.”
Meetings with mothers
She’s not the only one who thinks it’s time to push beyond old rivalries – particularly when the stakes are so high.
As global newspapers deemed Molenbeek Europe’s “jihad central” and Mr. Jambon promised to “clean it up,” Mr. Leman, chairman of the Molenbeek organization Foyer, invited the interior minister to a meeting with 60 neighborhood mothers to plead with authorities – and journalists – to stop stigmatizing the community as a factory of jihadism.
What is more important, he says, is to understand how a failure of solidarity – with Muslims, between regions in Belgium, and between nations in the European Union – is at the root of security issues today.
He calls himself a man of “law and order.” “But I see Brussels as somehow the victims now – and also Molenbeek – of a lack of responsibility not taken in the past.”
He says the bureaucracy that the “Belgian complexity” has created does not favor society. “You lose your time with a lot of bureaucratic steps that you have to make in this Belgian complexity,” he says. “The winners in the whole Belgium peace organization are the politicians and the bureaucrats. The losers are the inhabitants.”