By S. Mubashir Noor, New Age Islam
03 April 2016
Belgium’s capital Brussels is a cosmopolis like no other. Key institutions of the European Union (EU) call it home and so does NATO. It is, however, a city of contradictions. Though Brussels brings together regional policymakers to roadmap Europe’s future, it also has a dark underbelly that came into focus after the Paris attacks in November. For Brussels is the West’s de facto jihadist nursery.
Its suburb of Molenbeek has emerged as the base-camp for Islamist radicals planning large-scale strikes on European cities. Still, while Brussels reels from the triple suicide bombings of March 22 that claimed 35 lives and injured 300 others, the town of Mechelen located 30 minutes away has a firm handle on domestic terrorism despite housing a Muslim community that is among the largest in Belgium. Why is that? I will explain in a minute.
Abdelhamid Abaaoud, slain mastermind of the Paris attacks and alleged ringleader of a local Islamic State (IS) cell, hailed from Molenbeek. Ditto Salah Abdeslam, the would-be Paris bomber who chickened out at crunch time and evaded law enforcement for four months. Reports suggest news of Abdeslam’s arrest on March 18 likely prompted fellow conspirators to accelerate the Brussels bombing plot. They may also have scaled down the hits to compensate for a shorter lead-up, thereby reducing fatalities.
Belgium’s ties to international terrorism are not new. Its citizens of Maghreb origin were linked to the assassination of Ahmed Shah Massoud, the 2004 Madrid bombings and the shootings at Charlie Hebdo. Molenbeek’s demographics also fit the general profile of areas most susceptible to radicalism. Its large Muslim immigrant population lives densely packed in a virtual ghetto with inadequate amenities and a deep sense of isolation. Regional unemployment runs alarmingly high, perhaps 30 or 40 percent, and average income lags far behind the national trend.
Cast as social outliers, some young Molenbeek males have ostensibly organized into “Sharia gangs” that assault non-Muslims and those they deem lukewarm practitioners of Islam. Certain areas are no-go zones even for local police. “There are people living in the shadow and we have left them living in the shadow,” rues Molenbeek mayor Françoise Schepmans. Bilal Benyaich, a senior fellow at Itinera Institute, believes such men feel they “don’t stand a chance in society and envy others. This makes fertile grounds for recruiting.”
Broad divisions in Belgian society also make it hard for immigrants to assimilate and render a nationwide terror prevention campaign near impossible. The Dutch-speaking Flemings and French-speaking Walloons pledge allegiance to the same flag, but live in high social segregation. Their media outlets and politicians are rabidly partisan to the point where you question Belgium’s utility as a unified state. Naturally, this schism seeped into the corridors of power and created an administrative quagmire.
For a country of merely 11 million people, Belgium has no less than six governments: a federal government, a government for Brussels, a Flemish government for Flanders, a government of the French community, a government of the German-speaking community and one for the Walloon region. The capital, too, has 19 districts and mayors for a city of 2 million, and six police authorities that rarely work in lockstep. This micromanagement of political sway betrays the deep-rooted distrust between Flemings and Walloons.
Lack of counter-terror coordination has cost Belgium dearly and allowed jihadist activities to thrive in urban slums unchecked. Here are two glaring examples: Mechelen police revealed recently they knew of Abdeslam’s whereabouts since December last year, but failed to share this information with federal agencies. Turkish authorities also claim they deported one of the Brussels bombers, Brahim el-Bakraoui, last June and warned Belgian authorities he was a “foreign fighter.” Their message was “ignored.”
Unsurprisingly, then, Belgium is Europe’s leading per capita exporter of jihadist fighters to Syria. Nearly five hundred Belgians left for the Middle East to fight alongside IS, of which 130 have reportedly returned. Not a single one, however, belonged to Mechelen where Muslims are close to 20% of the population. In an interview with the BBC on March 25, Mechelen Mayor Bart Somers explained how his policy mix of community outreach and added vigilance has stymied interest in radicalism among the town’s Muslims males.
In contrast to immigrant ghettoisation in Brussels, Mechelen “gives neighbours the feeling that they are not left behind” because terrorism “starts in the streets,” says Somers. This is key to “prevent people from becoming frustrated, isolated and radicalized.” Somers also admits “no city in Belgium invests more in public cameras” to keep tabs on potential troublemakers.
Nevertheless, Mechelen works hard to “embrace the diversity,” since it is “not a problem for us, its an opportunity.” When asked why he thought Brussels failed to address rising resentment among Molenbeek Muslims that resulted in the suicide bombings, Somers had a simple answer: “no dialogue.” That just about explains everything wrong with the world today.
S. Mubashir Noor is a freelance journalist based in Pakistan