Vocal Europe: Why has such a terror attack happened in Paris second time after Charlie Hebdo?
Dave Sinardet: In this case the attacks were organised by French-Belgian cells. It is now Brussels that is under threat, as intelligence warns for attacks being prepared there. But given the international situation and the process of radicalisation that can also be seen among residents of other European countries, this type of attacks could happen elsewhere too. And of course they already happen more frequently outside Europe. The day before the Paris attacks there was also a terror attack by IS in Lebanon.
VE: Is there any link between European Refugee Crisis and the attacks in Paris?
DS: Some argue that terrorists have taken the migrant trail to come from Syria to Belgium. However there are no actual indications of this for the moment. Most terrorists are European nationals who went to Syria and came back. Others see a different type of link, in the sense that many refugees are fleeing from the kind of IS terror that we now see in Paris. In any case it is clear that the Paris attacks are used by far right politicians and other anti-immigration advocates to close the borders for refugees. That is probably not so difficult because part of public opinion are open for a discourse that amalgamates terrorists and refugees, if only for the Muslim link. The Paris attacks are also used to put under pressure the Schengen zone as a whole. Marine Le Pen for instance has called for reinstating national borders. It’s difficult to see how reinstating national borders would be a structural solution though. Terrorism is borderless, so it’s rather more European cooperation that is needed to fight it such as more sharing of intelligence among member states or an actual European intelligence service with important competences. However, Europe’s outer borders should be controlled better to make this function.
VE: Last week Belgium and Brussels got some very bad international press, after it came out that two of the terrorists who committed Paris attacks lived in Brussels or that the intelligence services had failed. Was this correct?
DS: It was indeed not a good week for the image of Belgium. This is in part due to a blame game that was played on the political level. The French president Hollande was very quick to point at the responsibility of Belgium, stating in parliament that the attacks were organised in Belgium, probably to avoid that the focus would come to much on the French services. The Belgian government was just as quick to point towards Brussels and more specifically Molenbeek and it’s previous socialist mayor who was in power for 20 years, which is part of their usual communication strategy to blame problems on the socialist opposition. The previous mayor who was never good at self-criticism in turn pointed at his successor, which has been in power for three years. This was of course a sad spectacle at a time where people expect honest answers from politicians. In reality, there is a responsibility at all these levels. Clearly, the Belgian intelligence services have made mistakes, for instance by not following up people who came back from Syria intensely enough. They also clearly lack sufficient means and personnel, compared to other countries. The current government initially cut the means of the state security service as part of general state economies, but reversed this after Charlie Hebdo. However, it came to light that the French intelligence services had missed crucial information too. And the previous mayor of Molenbeek, while having invested in the poorer neighbourhoods after years of neglect, has also turned a blind eye to problems with radicalisation. Just like the problem of radicalisation is complex and nuanced, the responsibilities are too.
VE: How come people who are borned in Belgium could be recruited by such terror groups like ISIS?
DS: Again, the answer is complex and multifaceted. One of the problems is clearly that there is an influence, particularly in Molenbeek, from Salafism, which is transmitted through radical mosques, but also through more clandestine prayer sites and meeting places. There is also a clear link with Saudi Arabia here, which indirectly finances the Great Mosque in Brussels. But the internet also plays an important role. Young people in search of themselves and of some form of recognition can be attracted to radical Islamist propaganda.
VE: What are the measures to be taken by Belgian government in order to minimize ISIS’ recruitments in Belgium?
DS: Clearly, there is a lot of work to do by the Belgian authorities to try and avoid radicalisation. It doesn’t help that the relevant competences are split over different government levels. The Belgian federal government is mostly competent for the security aspect. It announced a number of far-reaching measures last week, such as making those who are radicalising and could go to Syria wear electronic bracelets, sending people who come back from Syria straight to prison, extending temporary custody from 24 to 72 hours if someone is suspected of terrorism, etc. The announcement was partly an exercise in political communication: the government wanted to show the population but also the international community that it was on top of things. However, this type of measures would not have been possible just one week before. The Belgian connection to the Paris attacks and the actual threats for Belgium very quickly changed the political situation. The opposition did not fundamentally put any of these measures into question, even though they touch on some individual liberties. Also, it is not entirely clear how to make them legally possible.
* Dave Sinardet, professor of political science at the Free University of Brussels (VUB)