Shortly after the civil war in Syria started, a contingent of Belgian nationals flocked to link up with extremist groups in the region where they would acquire arms and explosives training. The departure of Belgians born to immigrant parents — some with criminal records — relieved authorities at the time.
“It was a burden off their shoulders to see their problems jet off to Syria on a one way ticket via Turkey, the calculation was for them not to come back,” Saliha Ben Ali, a member of the support group ‘Les Parents Concernés’ (The Affected Parents) and the mother of a Belgian national who died fighting in Syria, told Ha’aretz about the authorities indifference to the exodus of youths. “Now the authorities are starting to react, but only as the issue effects them directly.”
The culmination of disenfranchised youth, bereft of employment opportunities, and a fractured national identity — represented by a rift in the nation’s culture, politics, society, and institutions — manifested in Tuesday’s barbarous attack on Brussels that left at least 31 people dead and 271 wounded.
A Fractured Nation
Belgium has long been a nation divided in two. On one side are the French speaking Walloons, and on the other are the Flemish, who speak a Belgian derivative of Dutch. There’s also a small, less influential community of German speakers. The division between Walloon and the Flemish eclipses a common Belgian identity. As Ian Buruma writes in the New York Review of Books:
For much of its history, Brussels was occupied by oppressive empires: the Spanish Habsburgs in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Austria in the eighteenth century (after France’s Louis XIV had laid waste to the city in 1695), and France from 1795 until 1815, after which it became part of the Netherlands. Belgium became an independent kingdom only in 1830 (under King Leopold of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, a German, of course), after a combined rebellion of French-speaking socialists and Flemish Catholics against the Protestant Dutch king. Apart from their hatred of the Dutch, these groups had very little in common; they still don’t.
The divisions are so entrenched that Belgium set a record for democracies by going 589 days without an elected government. Brussels, a city divided into nineteen municipalities, has six different police departments that compete for finances and resources. With the departments in competition, information sharing is often sacrificed, according to complaints by Belgian Interior Minister Jan Jambon. Furthermore, analysts say that the police force is understaffed.
“You’ve obviously got a patchwork and balkanized police structure to begin with, which reflects the broader political picture of the country,” Frank Cilluffo, Director of the Center for Cyber and Homeland Security at George Washington University, told the LA Times. “You’ve got a question of political will, a question of capability, a question of capacity.”
If that’s not complicated enough, the nationalization of immigrants from Turkey, Morocco, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and other nations have created a neo-Belgian populace. One example of this is the Belgian national soccer team, known as Les Diables Rouges (the Red Devils). Many of the team’s stars have parents who immigrated from African countries. The team’s multilingual captain, Vincent Kompany, has been tapped to run for political office once he retires and could represent “a symbol of a new, united Belgium,” according to journalist Sam Knight.
But while there are occasional success stories like Kompany or pop-star Stromae (famed for catchy dance tunes like Alors on dans and Papa ou t’es), immigrant communities face widespread discrimination. Police forces are also overwhelmingly white in many places, including Antwerp, where the BBC reported last year that the one in six is Muslim, but only 22 out of 2,600 police officers are non-white. The unemployment rate for people of North and Sub-Saharan African descent is around 40 percent. Belgium also has higher than average rates in the EU for suicide and high school dropouts. Many of these troubled youths live in the Molenbeek neighborhood in Brussels — the same neighborhood where one of the Paris attackers was captured Friday.
“Belgium is, per capita, a wealthy country, but has contrived to achieve a situation in which the employed population feels heavily taxed and doubts the quality of public services that it receives in return,” Tim King wrote in Politico in December 2015. “Having too narrow a tax base, the Belgian state is poorly equipped to address the few pockets of desperate poverty, such as Molenbeek.”
Belgians In ISIS
Belgium now has the largest number of citizens (around 500) per capita in Europe that have linked up with ISIS in Syria. After the war in Syria started, radical groups like the recently dismantled Sharia4Belgium went to areas like Molenbeek and recruited disaffected youth.
“For foreign fighters the religious component in recruitment and radicalization is being replaced by more social elements such as peer pressure and role modelling,’’ a January 18 report from Europol, the EU law enforcement agency, said. “Additionally the romantic prospect of being part of an important and exciting development, apart from more private considerations, may play a role. Suicide bombers see themselves more as heroes than as religious martyrs.”
Writing in Newsweek on Tuesday, American journalist Kurt Eichenwald explained the phenomenon of Muslim extremists emanating from Belgium: “These are not intellectual Muslims with long beards and Korans in hand; labeling them jihadis or radical Islamists would be, to them, the highest compliment.”
What The Experts Say:
Professor at Belgium’s Ghent University and a senior associate fellow at the Royal Institute of International Relations, told Newsweek:
“Youth representatives in Belgium recently warned that many young people are depressed and feel hopeless.”
Professor at King’s College London and the director of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation, told Vox:
“If you have a vacuum that consists of alienated, marginalized people from migrant backgrounds who are socially and economically deprived, then it is only a question of time. Of when extremists go into that, take advantage, and push their narrative — which is basically that society is against you, and you need to engage in war.”
U.S. counterterrorism official
“The Belgians have been sitting on a ticking time bomb.”
What Belgians Say:
“In times like these we have to stand together, even if we don’t really know right from wrong anymore,” Mark Coenen, 57, told A Plus. “People must help each other, that’s why we’re human.”
“The trouble is the root causes and not the trees,” Jamal Ikazban, a deputy in the Brussels Parliament and the leader of the opposition on the Molenbeek Council, told the LA Times. “I meet people in Brussels and Molenbeek in tears for what has happened. They are afraid.”
“You can feel the fear on the streets today,” Souheil, a 21-year-old metro rider, told CNN. “But you can also see that people want to fight it. It’s a good thing.”