How Brussels became Europe’s extremist haven

Fragmentation, visible Western symbols, weak security: Brussels provides ideal conditions for jihad

Two men in the Molenbeek district, a neglected inner-city area of Brussels in economic decline, Jan. 25, 2015. (Andrew Testa/The New York Times)

Two men in the Molenbeek district, a neglected inner-city area of Brussels in economic decline, Jan. 25, 2015. (Andrew Testa/The New York Times)

The predominantly Muslim district of Molenbeek in Brussels is like a separate city state, spread across six square kilometres, and with a population of close to 100,000, it is nearly twice as dense as the average Brussels neighbourhood. Twenty-four hours after the recent terrorist attack in which at least 35 people were killed, the area is bustling where other parts of Brussels are deserted. Groups of young men hang around on the street and shoppers go about their business.

As I stand around talking with locals about the bombing, a car full of young men slows down and begins to shout at us angrily in Arabic. When I ask my companion, a 45-year-old Belgian-Moroccan father of two named Samir Benelcaid, what his friends are saying, he shrugs irritably and says he’s never met them before. “They think I shouldn’t talk to the press,” he says. “Because they think you are Islamophobic and will twist everything we say.”

It’s a common sentiment in this increasingly divided country, in which roughly six per cent of the population is Muslim and youth unemployment is at a staggering 22 per cent. After the arrest of Salah Abdeslam, one of the suspected Paris attackers, on this very street earlier this month, Belgian police clashed with locals who were angry that one of their own had been apprehended. In the days since the Brussels attacks, Belgium has been widely characterized as the weak link in Europe when it comes to cracking down on terror networks. Illegal gun running is a serious issue here—the Charlie Hebdo attackers obtained their weapons in Brussels. And according to the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence, more Belgians have gone to fight for Islamic State than any other European country, per capita. About 470 Belgians have left to fight in Syria and Iraq.

How is it that a country known for its beer, chocolate and bureaucracy could end up being the European hotbed of radicalization and extremism? For one, Belgium is a small but extremely diverse country, smack in the middle of Europe’s Schengen area, where passport-free travel is permitted. It borders France, Luxembourg, Germany and the Netherlands, and has three official languages, French, Dutch and German, as well as several other non-official dialects. After the Second World War, Belgium welcomed mass immigration, mostly from North Africa, when the country needed labour for its booming coal and steel industries—now mostly dried up.

In Molenbeek, it’s estimated that 70 per cent of the Muslim population are second-generation immigrants, but experts say this group hasn’t integrated as well as in other European countries, such as the U.K. or Germany. As Benelcaid says, “There is a gap between our community and the rest of European Belgians. We might be born here and grow up here but we are apart. It’s very easy to live in Brussels as a Muslim and never leave Molenbeek.”

Some believe Belgium’s linguistic diversity may be contributing to its problem with extremism. Because most imams in the country are French-speaking, many young Dutch-speaking Muslims have turned to the Internet in recent years for guidance in matters of faith. And it is here, in the realm of social media, that radicalizing forces like ISIS are strongest. For Belgians, a fragmented, highly diverse culture has long been a way of life—but onlookers now argue that this mass of cultural contradiction and general tolerance has created a unlikely safe haven for jihadis. As an editorial in Britain’s conservative Spectator recently complained, “The Belgians believed, as the British security services did before 7/7, that if they allowed Islamism to gestate at home, the terrorists would spare the country that had given them sanctuary. That fallacy now lies on the scrapheap of ideas where it always belonged.”

Adding to Belgium’s security issues is the fact that, as the de facto EU capital, it is populated with institutions that are symbolic of Western world unity. It is Europe’s military and political capital as well as home to NATO and many EU government agencies. This special status makes it more vulnerable to terror threats.

The diversity that made Brussels a perfect EU capital is also what renders it especially vulnerable in terms of security. Belgium has one of the most devolved governments in Europe. The justice system and intelligence services struggle to share information effectively, and the security infrastructure is tiny compared to many other EU countries. Add to that the fragmentation of Brussels, a city with six different police zones across 19 different boroughs.

While multiculturalism and laissez-faire tolerance often work, in this case they have inadvertently created a perfect storm—turning Brussels, and Molenbeek in particular, into Europe’s jihadi HQ.


How Brussels became Europe’s extremist haven

  1. Jameshalifax, your remarks are hateful and do not belong in a respectable public forum.

    • You know what else doesn’t belong in a respectible public forum?

      Suicide bombers.

    • By the way Steven Rheault Kihara…….are you saying you are NOT hateful of terrorists?

      Most people I know hate them…..unless of course, you are conducting a poll at the local mosque. There they are viewed more favourably.

  2. So what exactly did New York do to encourage 9/11? The premise is that there is logic to how maniacs select their targets. Of course, given limited imagination and resources, they’re likely to strike close to home while others are merely looking for high profile targets. As always, blaming the victim is misdirected. Finding social causes for antisocial behavior equally so.
    New York hosts the UN, and has 5 boroughs and 125 police precincts … does that mean they were asking for trouble? If Canada has two official languages, a few minor ones. a few regional dialects, a few ethnic groups that preserve their identity and high youth unemployment, does that make us less safe?
    I think the best, most knowledgeable comment on the Brussels extremists went something like ‘a comedy that became a tragedy in the last act’. Conpiracy theories and 1984ish notions of state security explain nothing.

  3. I’m astonished at how this article shifts the blame for these issues completely away from the perpetrators. It’s the country, it’s languages, its location, it’s intelligence gathering, it’s Imams not speaking the language etc. Poverty is always mentioned yet we don’t see these actions from countries where REAL poverty exists. The attackers in Brussels partied at nightclubs and seemed to live a life of fun.

    Yet, we don’t see these kind of actions from other immigrant populations? Does the uniqueness of Belgium cause Belgian born Muslims to join ISIS so they can behead other Muslims, gang rape 9 year old girls and sell them as sex slaves?

    Interestingly, there was a terror attack at the Bruxelles airport as far back as 1979. Palestinian terrorists attacked passengers in the arrival hall with grenades and machine gun fire, thinking it was Israeli passengers, who happened to still be in the EL AL plane. However, Israeli security was sweeping the hall prior to the arrival of the passengers and shot and captured the terrorists. I sent this information to multiple news outlets, and NOT one would publish it, as it seems they don’t want to link terror then with terror now. Then it was only Jews being attacked.

    It doesn’t matter if it’s Belgium, France, England, Spain, India, or the USA. It’s the ideology hijacking a religion that is the one and only cause.

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