Belgian officials today announced charges against a ninth person in connection with the Nov. 13 attacks that left 130 dead in Paris, highlighting the peculiarly Belgian dimension to Europe's struggle with Islamist extremism.
The detainee, a 30-year-old Belgian national identified only as Abdoullah C, is being charged with “terrorist murders and participation in the activities of a terrorist organisation,” reports Agence France-Presse. He was arrested in Brussels on Tuesday. Prosecutors allege he had multiple contacts with Hasna Aitboulahcen, the cousin of ringleader Abdelhamid Abaaoud, several times between the attacks and a subsequent police raid in Saint-Denis, France, during which both Aitboulahcen and Abaaoud died.
Abdoullah C is only the latest connection in the investigation to Belgium, which appears to be both a key planning ground for the attack and home to several of the terrorists. Of the eight men who died while carrying out the Paris attacks, at least three either were Belgian citizens or had lived there. And a possible ninth attacker still at large, Salah Abdeslam is also a Belgian citizen, reports Reuters.
Belgium's terrorist connections are not exclusive to the Paris attacks. In recent years, particularly as the so-called Islamic State's conflict in Syria and Iraq has drawn would-be jihadis from Europe, Belgium has reported the highest number of citizens per capita joining the terrorist group.
The Christian Science Monitor's Sara Miller Llana reported earlier this month that Belgium's radicalization problem is not just another case of an alienated Muslim population in Europe. Many of the issues that make Belgium – and its capital, Brussels, in particular – a fertile ground for radicalization have to do with its particular political history and decentralized, many-layered system of governance.
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. ...
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. ...
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.
Furthermore, as a meeting point for Europe and with a long history as an arms manufacturer, Belgium is a hot spot for the trade of weapons and other tools useful to terrorists.
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,” [Nils Duquet, a researcher at the Flemish Peace Institute,] 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 [Georges Dallemagne, a center-right opposition member of the federal parliament]. “The terrorists just do the same.”