AT a press conference soon after two blasts ripped through the Zaventem airport and the busy Maelbeek underground metro station in Brussels on the morning of March 22, a shaken Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel is reported to have said: “What we had feared has happened.”
He was obviously referring to the fact that Brussels, which had become Europe’s capital of jehadist activity from where terrorist plots had been planned and executed in the past several years, had become the target of the very same forces that grew in its lap. There was an unmistakable note of resignation in the Prime Minister’s words.
If seen as a share of its population of 10 million, more Belgians have joined extremist militant groups in Syria and Iraq than citizens of other European Union states. The story of how the terrorist project in Belgium gathered strength and momentum under the very noses of the country’s law enforcement and intelligence services is now emerging. It is a story of the Belgian state’s missed opportunities to apprehend known suspects, and the failure of the countries that are today part of the E.U. to pool in and act on intelligence inputs in a coordinated manner. While extremists used the open borders of Europe to travel back and forth freely, intelligence flows stopped at the borders. Therefore, what was feared might happen, did happen, eventually.
The attacks on Brussels took 31 lives and left several dozens injured. It could have been worse, as evidence has emerged of a much bigger and more complex plot in the making, that an Islamic State (I.S.)-linked terrorist cell had to abort and advance when Salah Abdeslam was arrested by the Belgian police just days before the attacks. Abdeslam, who was involved in the November 2015 Paris attacks, and whose brother Ibrahim blew himself up outside the Comptoir Voltaire café in Paris, was hiding in plain sight in Molenbeek for the past four months.
Investigations have uncovered a plot and a cast of characters closely linked to the Paris attacks and a string of situations where the Belgian security agency failed to pick up and act on intelligence cues.
Abdeslam’s fingerprints were found in a safe house, which the police raided after the blasts. Detonators were also found there. Najim Laachraoui, who, along with Ibrahim el-Bakraoui, blew himself up at the Zaventem airport, had travelled by car with Abdeslam to Paris before the attacks there. Their car was checked at the Hungarian-Austrian border but allowed to pass. Laachraoui’s DNA samples were found in another apartment at Schaerbeek in Brussels, which had been used by the terrorists as a hideout. Most significantly, they were also found on devices found at the sites of the Paris attacks.
The terrorist who blew himself up at the Maelbeek station was Khalid el-Bakraoui, brother of Ibrahim el-Bakraoui. The mysterious “man with a hat”, whose image appears in a surveillance camera pushing a trolley along with two co-conspirators, fled the scene when his detonator failed to work. He is still on the run.
Since then, seven suspects have been arrested in raids on various parts of the city.
The most significant of these occurred at a tram stop in the Schaerbeek neighbourhood three days after the airport and tube station bombings, where a man was shot in the leg and taken away by the police. French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said the police foiled a planned terrorist attack and arrested a “high-level” person involved in “advanced stages” of a plot to attack the country.
Warning ignored Overwhelmed by and under-prepared for the attacks and its aftermath, embarrassed Belgian Ministers appeared in Parliament to explain the slips made by the police. Interior Minister Jan Jambon, Justice Minister Koen Geens and Foreign Minister Didier Reynders had to appear before a special parliamentary committee. “Our services operate under enormous pressures … If, at times, we fail in this, then I ask you humbly to excuse us,” Geens is reported to have said.
In fact, soon after the blasts, Jambon and Geens had offered to resign following statements from the Turkish authorities that Ibrahim el-Bakraoui was arrested and later expelled from Turkey with a warning, which they claim Belgium had ignored, that he was a “terrorist foreign fighter”.
Security and intelligence expert Annie Machon attributes this massive failure of intelligence to the nature of mass data surveillance. The former employee of MI5 and a whistle-blower, she said dragnet surveillance drags up so much data that the focus gets lost. “The more and more intelligence agencies spread electronic surveillance, the less and less effective they are, because they ignore some of the more traditional aspects of intelligence work, where you identify persons of interest and then investigate them and their networks,” she said.
Annie Machon said the tendency of national intelligence agencies to be “secretive and mistrustful of others” had weakened methods of intelligence gathering and hampered sharing of intelligence. She pointed to the United States’ National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s telephone calls, which came to public knowledge thanks to whistle-blower Edward Snowden.
The insularity that runs deep in intelligence agencies of the E.U. states and its costly consequences were highlighted at an urgent meeting of E.U. Ministers for Justice and Home Affairs in Brussels on March 23. Briefing the press after the meeting, Dimitrus Avramopolous, member of the European Council in charge of Migration, Home Affairs and Citizenship, did some self-critical plain-speaking.
He said: “The blasts came as a shock but not [as] a surprise. Every time there is a terrorist attack, we repeat words and commitments. But the people are tired and scared, and something needs to change.” He criticised the lack of unity among the E.U. states in tackling terrorism. “There is a lack of political will, lack of coordination, and unfortunately a lack of trust” among member-states, he said. Announcing a joint liaison team of international experts in counter-terrorism from the E.U., he said: “We need to talk to each other, our systems need to talk to each other. Data cannot go into black boxes. It needs to be interconnected and become interoperable.”
Molenbeek, hotbed of terrorism Molenbeek, one of the 19 municipalities of the Brussels capital region, shot to international fame in the last couple of years as the “jehadi capital of the world” and the “hotbed of terrorism”. Many of the Paris attackers came from Molenbeek. Ayoub el-Khazzani (who attempted to open fire on an Amsterdam-Paris train) lived here. It is believed that extremists connected with the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris also came from this locality.
Molenbeek, which has a population of roughly 95,000, has seen waves of immigrant settlers. The working class locality, with streets flanked by shabby tall buildings, the ground floors of which house clothes shops, tea shops and restaurants, is home to a large Moroccan and Pakistani immigrant presence. With a reported unemployment rate of 30 per cent, it is a fertile ground for Salafi and extremist groups, which have been successful in drawing a number of young men to their ranks. The law enforcers say that a majority of the fighters who have gone to Syria from Belgium are from Molenbeek.
The residents of Molenbeek are wary of journalists who have flooded the area since the bombings. It is difficult to get the average person on the street to speak to a stranger with a notebook and pen, much less to a television crew.
Rumours about Molenbeek being an unsafe place, thick with jehadists who block entry by the police, like most rumours, turn out to be wrong. It is a bustling lower-to-middle income area, which has seen waves of migration not only from north African countries such as Morocco and Algeria, but also from Europe. Its early post-War identity was, in fact, carved by Italians, who arrived in droves to work in the notoriously unsafe coal mines in the region around Brussels. That Molenbeek is largely populated by immigrants is obvious from the clothes worn by its residents. Although many languages are spoken here, French is the language of public transaction.
As for the growing hold of organisations such as the I.S. over Molenbeek’s youth, the residents are firm that the recruiters are not Muslims and use Islam to serve their purpose. A young man becomes a jehadist not because of the pull of religion but as a response to other pressures that have been slowly stacking up and overwhelm him at a critical moment in his life.
Karim Bazah, the owner of a successful organic Italian restaurant in Molenbeek, is baffled by the phenomenon of jehadi control, which seems like a giant pied piper drawing scores of impressionable young men lining up in abject subordination.
“This is something none of us can understand,” he said. “At a certain age when they are growing up, young people want to feel useful, they need to be praised and given recognition.” Acknowledging that the state of alienation that afflicts many youngsters from immigrant backgrounds—discrimination after all lies at the root of the deprivation that large segments of the immigration population in Belgium face—could be at the root of it all.
Bazah said that parental and community guidance were important as well. It was at a point of extreme vulnerability, when boys transition to manhood, that jehadists step in, giving them the affirmation, peer support and praise they thirst for.
“There is nothing religious about the I.S. recruitment,” Bazah said. “They are recruiting soldiers.” Many of the recruits have links to crime rings and drugs and have led lives that are clearly “un-Islamic”, and their conversions do not make them truly religious, he insisted. The radicalisation does not come from the mosque, but rather from outsiders who enter the area with the purpose of specifically targeting youngsters.
In a perceptive study of the jehadi phenomenon, academic Rik Coolsaet writes: “Struggling with identity and self-image might have been demanding for youngsters since time immemorial, but society today is demanding, complex, and increasingly unequal.” He describes jehadists of the Iraqi and Syrian war as the “fourth wave of foreign fighters”, different in many fundamental ways from earlier jehadist fighters.
“The children [and grandchildren] of Moroccan migrants of the 1960s and 1970s are more likely to face downward mobility than their Belgian-Turkish peers. Research has made it clear that feelings of exclusion are more prevalent among Belgian-Moroccan youngsters [the same is the case in the Netherlands]. The disappointment of not being recognised and accepted as equal citizens is thus felt powerfully among Belgian-Moroccan youngsters, more so than among their peers with Turkish roots,” he writes, echoing the view of Bazah.
Some 470 foreign fighters from Belgium are believed to have left for Syria. According to Coolsaet, the typical new recruit of today is young—with an average age of 23—and the decision to leave is sudden. Their knowledge of Islam is shallow and superficial. “Once in Syria and Iraq, they are very self-centred and cultivate the image they want to display. Their yearning to place themselves at the centre of events (with numerous selfies and social media posts on trivia like kohl make-up for boys and other teenage themes) and their desire for attention reflect a degree of narcissism that was largely absent among their older predecessors. Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the presumed ring-leader of the 2015 terrorist plots and attacks in France and Belgium, dubbed himself as a “terrorist tourist” in a movie on his mobile phone, illustrated with a series of selfies. “Being a radical is fun,” according to a Belgian wannabe foreign fighter, who had been in Syria for a couple of weeks.
In this respect, too, they do not display the characteristics of religious fundamentalists but that of the contemporary selfie generation of which they are a part. “The scale of the departures distinguishes the current foreign fighter phenomenon from its predecessors, straining the capabilities of the police and intelligence,” Coolsaet writes.
While the Brussels attacks may have created an anti-Muslim feeling amongst some sections, the thousands who gather everyday at the memorial for the victims at the historic Place de la Bourse appear determined not to allow the multi-strand quality of Belgium nationalism fall victim to the poison of racism and hatred.
For Yousra Elbonazzati, a young and articulate student who had a lucky escape in the airport blast, the choices are clear. “I could have been a victim of the attacks. The Daesh are not Muslims. I love Belgium, and I am a Muslim. I think we should be together for the sake of humanity not religion,” she said, after lighting some candles and placing some flowers on the carpet of a floral commemoration for those unsuspecting victims of an act of unreason and brutality.