Vocal Europe: What are the reasons behind the recent terror attacks that hit Brussels? Why has Brussels been attacked again?
Dave Sinardet: The attacks are clearly driven by Jihadi terrorism, linked to IS. The international situation plays a part, with the military intervention against IS, to which Belgium contributes. Brussels is of course also a politically interesting target, given it’s symbolic position at the heart of Europe and home of important European and international institutions, like the European Commission and NATO. This is however the first time that Brussels has been hit by a Jihadist terrorist attack, even though the city was already under threat since the Paris attacks in November, as these had been partially planned from Brussels and at least one suspect, Salah Abdeslam, was still on the loose. This suspect was finally caught last week, which initially lead to relief, as well as misplaced triumphalism by some Belgian politicians. Unfortunately, the terrorist cell was larger and executed an attack that was already being planned.
VE: Can you elaborate the factors that create a fertile ground for particularly so many Belgian Muslims to be attracted to extremist groups?
DS: First of all, it must be said that radicalisation among Muslims is not only a Belgian problem. Recently, French prime minister Manuel Valls as well as the French minister of Urban policy said that there are also neighbourhoods in France with problems similar to Molenbeek. This is also the case in other countries.
However, while there have been foreign fighters leaving from most parts of Europe, Belgium does hold the sad record of having provided the highest number of foreign fighters per capita of all EU countries. And Molenbeek turned into a logistical hub for jihadist terrorist networks. This cannot be neglected. Typical in such a crisis situation is that everybody projects their ideological truths on it. Some say the explanation is purely socio-economical, with people from immigrant backgrounds in pour neighbourhoods not getting any chances. There are indeed elements that point in that direction.
Other sad records that Belgium holds is that it is one of the countries with the poorest school results and highest unemployment among people with a different cultural background. This is of course a very problematic situation. However, this doesn’t seem to explain everything. Some of the terrorists also come from middle class backgrounds. One of the suicide bombers in Brussels, who was also a bomb maker for the Paris attacks, had been a university student after leaving his Catholic high school with good results. His brother followed an entirely different path and became a Belgian Taekwondo champion. He now strongly condemns the acts of his brother. Others point to Islam as being the cause of everything. Of course, there is a clear link with Islam. But there are also many Muslims that practice their religion without any tendency to violent fundamentalism. For instance, Belgium’s important Turkish community provides very little foreign fighters.
So, simple answers to complex problems will not help us. There are also a number of other elements at play. The illegal arms trade in Belgium made it an interesting place for potential terrorists, a consequence of Belgium having had one of the most lakse arms regulations up until ten years ago. The active spread of Wahhabism by Saudi-Arabia, through the funding of mosques and Islamic organisations also plays a role. And of course the fact that in a globalised world, conflicts in other parts of the world are also played out at home.
VE: Do you consider any failure or inefficiency of Belgium’s security and intelligence apparatus when it comes to taking pre-emptive measures to counter terror attacks?
DS: It’s of course very difficult to prevent such attacks, as has been shown before in London, Madrid and Paris.
However, in the Belgian case some of the potential terrorists were known. Also, in the past week, a number of quite bewildering dysfunctions came to light. Such as the fact that one of last week’s suicide bombers was arrested by Turkish police at the Syrian border last summer after having been convicted some years ago in Belgium but was perfectly able to come back to Belgium and disappear from the radar. Or the fact that the police of Mechelen had information about the hiding place of Salah Abdeslam but did not share it with the federal services. A parliamentary research commission should look into these and other dysfunctions and the responsibilities for them in the next weeks.
One of the problems seems to be the problematic functioning of the anti-terrorist cell in the federal police. Putting militaries in the streets, which was done since the Paris attacks, may give the population a sense of security and can relieve police officers, but it’s more of a quick way for the government to show it is ensuring security than an effective way to stop terrorists. More fundamentally, it is fair to say that Belgium never had a strong intelligence culture. Intelligence services have been chronically underfunded and do not always cooperate well.
Also in recent years, security issues have not been very high on the political agenda. When new security threats linked to Jihadi terrorism were developing in Europe, the Belgian political elite was looking inwards, focused for many years on linguistic and institutional debates, such as the split of an electoral district and splitting up federal competences over Belgium’s many government layers. These occupied political and media elites for a number of years, leading to a string of unstable governments and even a record period of 541 days without federal government. There is no direct causal link, but politics is of course a question of priorities: time spent on institutional bickering could not be spent tackling other challenges, like reform of police and justice.
The worst thing is that the result of this long crisis period, the so-called sixth state reform that politicians finally agreed on, has only fragmented political authority even more, with even aspects of justice being splintered. Last week, confronted with questions on the observation of two of the suicide bombers when they were on parole, he could directly refer to the fact that this was not his competence, but that of the communities, which are in turn both competent in Brussels.
VE: Are there measures to be taken at intra-society level to prevent terror attacks in Belgium? If yes, how can peaceful Muslim communities in Belgium be taken on board to fight jihadists at home?
DS: On the short term, the way to prevent more attacks – if possible at all – will mostly be through effective intelligence and police action. Fundamental solutions take more time and will require societal reforms. That won’t be simple, the causes of this phenomenon being complex, as I explained. It’s also difficult because of the lack of cultural integration of large parts of the Muslim communities in the broader Belgian society and the fact that there are not many Muslim leaders in Belgium who have authority in the entire community, as well as in Belgium as a whole. Not that lack of cultural integration has to be a problem in itself. The Jewish community in Antwerp for instance cannot be called culturally integrated and holds very conservative views on issues like women’s rights and gay rights, similar to those in large parts of the Muslim communities, which are at odds with the consensus in Belgium.
VE: Since the recent terror attacks in different EU capitals are inter-linked to each other as it is the case for recent Paris and Brussels attacks, what can it be done at trans-national level in Europe?
DS: This is an important question. The European level is crucial to fight terrorism. Terrorism crosses all borders, so the fight against it should do the same. The EU should urgently develop a real European intelligence service, a sort of European FBI. Today, there is still a reluctance to exchange of information between national intelligence services. They are stuck in a national logic, given the national interests they were meant to defend in the past. However, today national security can only be guaranteed at a transnational level, or at least through structural transnational cooperation. After every attack, voices are heard that plead for a European intelligence service. Former German chancellor Helmut Kohl already did so in 1991. But even though some improvement in information exchange can be noted, in the end, fundamental changes don’t occur because of the resilience of national dynamics.
* Dave Sinardet, professor of political science at the Free University of Brussels (VUB)