Months after Paris, why Brussels is still Europe's ground zero for jihadists

Belgium's capital has been on alert since the Paris rampage last fall. Days before Tuesday's blasts, which claimed 30 lives, a top Paris suspect was captured in Brussels.

Christian Hartmann/Reuters
Police man a security checkpoint outside the Midi train station following bomb attacks in Brussels on Tuesday.

As authorities scramble to respond to the deadly explosions that struck Brussels Tuesday, a question has reemerged: Why is Belgium's capital a center of jihadist activity?

The question arose last November in the aftermath of the even deadlier Paris attacks when investigators followed the trail to Brussels. Just Friday, a key Paris suspect, Salah Abdeslam, was arrested following a shootout in a Brussels neighborhood.

The deadly bombings Tuesday at the Brussels airport and one of the city’s metro stations killed at least 30 people and wounded more than a hundred. At least one of the two explosions at the airport was attributed to a suicide bomber.

While the Islamic State (IS) group claimed responsibility for Tuesday's attacks, there was no immediate evidence linking them to Mr. Abdeslam, The Associated Press reports.

But after his arrest, Abdeslam reportedly told authorities he had created a new network and was planning new attacks. His comments and Tuesday’s attacks leave Belgian officials asking what has led their country to become Europe's ground zero for Islamic extremists – and what it will take to root them out.

In December, The Christian Science Monitor’s Sara Miller Llana reported that, “the forces that shape capital cities can often be hard to understand – but Belgium’s case may stand alone.” 

With a population of 11.2 million – of whom about six percent are Muslim – Belgium has per capita more jihadis who have left to fight with IS in the Middle East than any other European nation. After the Paris rampage, in which 130 people were killed, the risk of a similar attack was deemed so high in Brussels that schools and the metro closed down for four days. The city has been on high alert ever since.

So what is it about Belgium that has given it such an outsized role in Islamic extremism? As Ms. Llana reported from Brussels:

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.

Yet Llana says the root cause that is most often pointed to is far more banal: “the ​city's complicated bureaucracy," which is "constructed around age-old ethnic-linguistic tensions​ and known for its inability to accomplish anything quickly.”​

“The system has always worked to a certain extent, but now we see it has come to its limits in this crisis,” Pascal Verbeken, a Belgian writer, told her in the aftermath of the Paris attacks. That same system will once again be put to the test as authorities work to piece together Tuesday’s attacks.

So too will Belgium’s counterterrorism program. The country’s international reputation, which took a severe hit in the aftermath of the Paris attacks, faces a new round of scrutiny. As Tim King wrote for Politico Saturday:

The attacks in Paris in November provoked trenchant criticism from various quarters, including from this website, of how Belgium had failed in its duty to keep public order. It takes much more than the arrest of the Bataclan perpetrators to address all those problems: the failure to confront radical mosques; the availability of weapons and false documents; the poor coordination between the various layers of law-enforcement and the poor quality of some community policing.

Another issue is the prevalence of guns in Belgium. A European security official in contact with Belgian police says at least one and possibly two Kalashnikov rifles were found in the departure lounge at the Brussels airport after the attacks, the AP reports.

Belgium’s long history with quality gun manufacturing, coupled with lax gun laws, makes it a hub for the illegal arms trade, Miller Llana reported. Criminal networks in the country thrive because of its location in the middle of Western Europe.

“It’s the kind of place where everyone has always met in Europe: Napoleon, the Nazis, everybody used to come here,” Georges Dallemagne, a center-right opposition member of the federal parliament, told Llana. “The terrorists just do the same.”

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