News analysis: Paris terror attacks

Belgium - a hotbed of extremism in Europe

A shopkeeper setting up his wares in Brussels' Molenbeek district yesterday, across the road from the Cafe Les Beguines owned by Ibrahim Abdeslam, one of the suicide bombers implicated in the Paris attacks. In some parts of Molenbeek, where the Paris
A shopkeeper setting up his wares in Brussels' Molenbeek district yesterday, across the road from the Cafe Les Beguines owned by Ibrahim Abdeslam, one of the suicide bombers implicated in the Paris attacks. In some parts of Molenbeek, where the Paris attacks appear to have been hatched, up to 80 per cent of the residents are Muslim.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

It accounts for the largest number of volunteer fighters in Syria as a percentage of its population

French President Francois Hollande's claims that the suicide terror attacks which claimed more than 120 lives in Paris were "organised" in Belgium have cast an unflattering spotlight on a small European nation otherwise best-known for its stunning architecture, excellent restaurants, gourmet chocolates and the hosting of European Union institutions.

But it was no surprise to politicians and intelligence agencies worldwide. For Belgium has long held the dubious honour of being one of Europe's most significant hubs for Islamic extremism and terrorism. Muslims began settling in Belgium as migrant workers during the 1960s when local steel plants and coal mines were short of labour. The largest single Muslim community originates from Morocco, but there is also a big group from Turkey.

The numbers involved are a source of constant controversy for, like France, Belgium forbids the collection of religious or racial statistics. Still, estimates of between 700,000 and 800,000 Belgian Muslims are considered accurate; that would put their numbers at between 6.5 and 7.1 per cent of Belgium's 11.2 million-strong population.

That is not very different from the percentages of Muslims in either France or the Netherlands, Belgium's immediate neighbours. Still, there are certain peculiarities which set Belgian Muslims apart.

The first is their pronounced concentration in one city, the capital of Brussels, where they may account for a quarter of all residents.

The Muslim community is also separated from other Belgians in more definite ways than those encountered in other European states. Certain neighbourhoods of Brussels are almost exclusively Muslim; in some parts of Molenbeek, where the latest Paris terrorist attacks appear to have been hatched, up to 80 per cent of the residents are Muslim.

The lack of integration goes even deeper: over two-thirds of young people of Moroccan or Turkish descent "import" their spouses from the countries of their parents.  The result is a constant loop of social segregation, as almost each generation of newly wed couples includes fresh immigrants.

And then, there is official neglect. Belgium's political life is dominated by constant disputes between its French-speaking Walloons and Dutch-speaking Flemish populations. The country's Muslims have no stake in either camp and are ignored by both; in a country where the bulk of the population is searching for its own national identity, it is not surprising Muslims find it especially hard to integrate.

The Belgian authorities have had plenty of advance warning about the violent and dangerous nature of extremists in their midst. Sharia4Belgium, a group grooming young people for violence rose to prominence five years ago, but local courts dismantled the organisation and handed 45 of its members lengthy jail sentences only in February this year.

Belgium accounts for the largest number of volunteer fighters in Syria as a percentage of its population; over 600 are estimated to be fighting in the ranks of the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria terrorist organisation.

And there were plenty of terrorist attacks nearer home. Brussels' Jewish museum was targeted in May last year; the murderer who killed four people lived in the same Molenbeek district which acted as the breeding ground for future terrorist atrocities. Amedy Coulibaly, the Frenchman who machine-gunned people in a Jewish supermarket in Paris in January this year, got his weapons and ammunition in Brussels, where both are plentiful and cheap.

Similarly, the gunman who attempted to kill hundreds on a busy train between Belgium and France in August started the journey fully armed in Brussels. And according to French investigators, at least two of the perpetrators of the latest carnage in Paris lived in Brussels. Almost every terrorist incident now taking place in Europe is followed by subsequent arrests in Belgium.

Belgian politicians blame an inefficient, bloated administration divided along linguistic communities as the chief reason for their inability to cope with terrorism. "Brussels is a relatively small city of 1.2 million," says Deputy Prime Minister Jan Jambon, who also serves as Interior Minister. "And yet we have six police departments and 19 different municipalities," he complains.

But this serves as an excuse, rather than an explanation. For in reality the size of local police forces - most of which do little more than impose parking fines - is immaterial; what matters is that Belgium's domestic intelligence services have been starved of resources and have few of the language and other professional skills required to penetrate terrorist organisations.

It also matters that generations of Belgian politicians have preferred to hide behind meaningless slogans of "multi-culturalism", rather than deal with the problem they faced; in effect, the authorities simply do not know what goes on in their neglected Muslim neighbourhoods, which are largely no-go areas.

Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel has now promised extra measures against terrorism. "We are focused on prevention, but we need to act repressively too," he said.

Yet the process of ramping up the capabilities of the country's intelligence services will be costly and lengthy; Belgium is now paying for lost time.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 18, 2015, with the headline 'Belgium - a hotbed of extremism in Europe'. Print Edition | Subscribe