The past weeks have unveiled a new face of Belgium. On the 18th of March, the Paris attacks’ mastermind, Salah Abdelslam, was arrested in Molenbeek. Three days later, Brussels was hit by a double terrorist attack aimed at both its airport and subway system, killing 35 people. The Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attacks, declaring its will to punish Belgium’s commitment to the international coalition in Syria.
It’s not the first the time that Belgium is linked to terrorism. In May 2014, Medhi Nemmouche, who attacked the Jewish museum in Brussels had been staying in the suburb of Molenbeek. This similar to Ayoub el-Khazzani’s stay there in 2015 before planning an attack in the Thalys train, as well as many others who were considered by European authorities as lone wolf terrorists. In tandem, Belgium has the highest rate of foreign fighters per capita in all of Europe. Indeed, 400 Belgians have left the country to go to Syria since 2012.
Belgium has a strategic location at the centre of Europe. By car or train, France and Germany are directly across the frontier, permitting everyone to travel to Paris, Strasbourg, Cologne, Berlin, etc.. A 2-hour drive is sufficient to cross Belgium by car, and because the country belongs to the Schengen area, free circulation of European goods and people is authorized.
Indeed, there is no sufficient control to the frontiers, making it easy for terrorists to enter and leave the country quickly. In this light, Belgium appears as the crossroads of Europe, which represents a real asset for terrorist organizations willing to perpetrate attacks across Europe.
Integration of Muslim youth in society
Muslim youth is not integrated into society, making them susceptible to extremist religious discourse and radicalization. As a Brussels’ district, Molenbeek has a population of 100,000, with more than 40% of the population having foreign extraction and around 30% actually possessing foreign nationality. This important percentage of foreigners needs to be taken into account and integrated into society.
However, Belgium is struggling to efficiently integrate Muslim youth. Indeed, the unemployment rate is exceeding 25% and youth unemployment is nearly reaching 30%. Muslim youth often is the main victim of unemployment, facing discrimination and racism because of their origins. Rejected from society and even rejected from wanting to integrate within society, they are highly sensitive to extremist religious discourse and radicalization.
Discrimination and lack of opportunities among Muslim youth has driven many young men into radicalization because they do not feel accepted at home. Jihadi recruiters are hightly adept at exploiting this feeling of marginalization to encourage them to join the jihad. Furthermore, Muslim youth is easily drawn to radicalization because of the Belgian religious environment. Indeed, it must be highlighted that the Belgian Muslim community lacks local imams. This represents an important vacuum to fill. Saudi Arabia filled it with imported and sponsored imams promoting Wahhabi Islam, especially through the Grand Mosque of Brussels.
In the 1960s, Saudi Arabia was the first country to finance the creation of the Grand Mosque and the promotion of radical Islam in Brussels. After soon becoming a breeding ground for jihadist ideology, the 1990s have seen the creation of an important network of fundamentalists working on the salafization of Belgian Islam. In this regard, Molenbeek underlines how Jihadist networks took advantage of the non-integration of Muslim youth on the economic and social level. Marginalized and isolated from society, they became more sensitive to extremist discourse and therefore groups like Sharia4Belgium started taking advantage of this vacuum to recruit large numbers of people.
Major hub for illegal firearms trafficking
Brussels is a major centre for buying illegal firearms. The fact that the city has no fewer than six different police zones makes the fight against illegal arms trafficking inefficient. One of the main reasons for this traffic is the presence of mafia organisation coming from Chechen, Albanian and Kosovan diasporas. Rivalries between those groups lead them to import weapons from their original countries – where they overflow – in order to protect their clandestine economy, especially prostitution and drug trafficking. This, in turn, transforms the weapons’ illicit traffic into a lucrative business.
Weapons are transiting freely from post-Soviet states and are subsequently purchased in Belgium. For example, Amedy Coulibaly, who attacked the Hyper Casher in Paris bought his weapons in Charleroi, Wallony. At this location, weapons would be easily accessible and inexpensive. According to francetvinfo, a kalashnikov costs between 1000 and 2000 euros. Strong contacts between jihadist networks and arms dealers serve only to facilitate this purchasing process. As a result, today Belgium authorities suppose that there are 900,000 weapons in Belgium, with 1/3rd that are not registered.
Belgium’s small security apparatus and lack of intelligence personnel
Belgium has a relatively small security apparatus. Despite Brussels being the European diplomatic capital, the Belgian security services counts 600 employees as its military personnel. Additionally, only a thousand intelligence officers are to secure the country and all the institutions it shelters (NATO, EU institutions, more than 4500 international agencies and companies). The lack of intelligence culture has allowed terrorist groups to actually proliferate. In this light, the security challenge requires more intelligence at both the national and European levels, instead of withdrawing into themselves by building border fences.
Indeed, by closing Schengen, it would reinstall border controls, creating chaos when considering that more than 700000 people are crossing the border each day. Moreover, it would leave the countries of Southern Europe to deal with the refugees alone, giving the image of a dislocated Europe unable to coordinate. Furthermore, the threat of terrorism is already inside the EU, – the majority of the Paris attackers so far identified were European-born -, and border controls cannot stop the spread of ideas that form the essence of terrorism. Closing Schengen instead of developing further intelligence cooperation would only reflect the misunderstanding of the nature of the enemy.
To adequately address the terrorist threat, Belgium would need to encourage an updated Schengen under the authority of a jointly-run agency such as the EU’s Frontex, which would cooperate and share a common terrorist watchlist and fingerprint database. Being a European crossroad that struggles with socially and economically integrating Muslim youth, Belgium represents a golden opportunity for terrorists willing to perpetrate attacks across Europe. Furthermore, in the context of illegal arms trafficking, Belgium has become an epicentre for jihadist networks. Its small security apparatus has certainly allowed the development of an intricate network. Therefore, Belgium’s sole solution is to modernize and convince other European states that a shared intelligence system needs to become the norm, instead of retreating behind resurrected national borders.