The Belgian justice system is, by all available evidence, a forgiving one. In the fall of 2009, Khalid el-Bakraoui was arrested for four carjackings and a robbery in which he and some friends kidnapped a bank employee at the point of a Kalashnikov assault rifle and forced her to deactivate an alarm, netting themselves $60,000. By 2013, he was back on the streets of Brussels.
His older brother, Ibrahim, was sentenced to nine years in jail in August 2010, after he opened fire on police with an AK-47 during the hold-up of a downtown Western Union branch, wounding an officer in the leg. Yet, just over four years later, in October 2014, he too was released on parole—under the condition that he couldn’t leave the country for more than a month at time.
Last June, police in Turkey informed Belgian authorities that they had detained Ibrahim in the town of Gaziantep, along the Syrian border, on suspicion that he was a foreign fighter for the so-called Islamic State. They put him on a flight to the Netherlands and let the Dutch and the Americans know too. The U.S. added the 29-year-old’s name to its voluminous terror watchlist, but there were no legal consequences back home. In fact, police were only on the lookout for Khalid, 27, the subject of an Interpol warrant for violating his parole.
At 7:58 a.m. on Tuesday, March 22, Ibrahim blew himself up in the departure hall of Brussels International airport. Another suicide bomber, Najim Laachraoui, followed suit 10 seconds later. At 9:11 a.m., Khalid el-Bakraoui detonated his device inside a crowded Metro car as the train pulled out of Maelbeek station, in the heart of the city. The twin terror attacks killed at least 35 innocents and wounded more than 300, but they could have been much worse. Police are hunting for a fourth suspect who fled the airport leaving an undetonated suitcase bomb behind. At the men’s rented apartment in the north of the city they found 14 kilograms more of explosives, along with a suitcase full of nails and bolts, an AK-47 and an Islamic State flag.
In the days since the blasts, it has become painfully clear that the Brussels terrorists were part of a much larger network, one that was also responsible for a night of explosions and gunfire in Paris last November that left 130 dead and 368 wounded. Laachraoui, 24, was the bomb-maker, leaving behind his DNA on two suicide vests used outside the Stade de France. Salah Abdeslam, the lone surviving Paris attacker, who was captured in Brussels on March 18, left fingerprints behind in a different apartment that had been rented by Khalid. In all, at least 14 people who participated in the planning or execution of the Paris and Brussels attacks had lived in the Belgian capital. Ten had serious criminal records—including the chief Paris plotter, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, who spent time in a Belgian prison. And eight had spent time in, or attempted to enter, Syria and then travelled back home to Europe.
Belgium’s poor Muslim neighbourhoods— like Molenbeek in Brussels, where the unemployment rate is 28 per cent—have long been recognized as a major source of foreign fighters for ISIS and other radical Islamic groups. Police say some 470 people have left the country to become soldiers in Syria, Iraq and Libya, making Belgium the biggest per capita jihadi supplier in Europe. But it’s only belatedly that authorities have come to realize that some are returning with the intent of creating a new, domestic battlefield.
“There’s an obvious disconnect. Not all the pistons are firing,” says Matthew Levitt, a former U.S. intelligence analyst who is now director of the counterterrorism program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Levitt was in Brussels meeting with officials in the days before the attacks, and present during the planning for the raid that found Abdeslam’s fingerprints. Police had thought they were going into an empty apartment, but ended up in a shootout where one suspect was killed while two others—possibly the Bakraoui brothers—got away. Levitt says the Belgians had their “a-ha moment” back in January 2015, when they uncovered a major terrorist plot in the eastern city of Verviers, a week after the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris. But getting various police forces, intelligence agencies, community groups and politicians pulling in the same direction has been a major task in a country that went for 20 months without a federal government in 2010-11, due to a deep split between the Flemish north and the French-speaking south. “They’ve made great strides, but it’s going to take some time,” says Levitt. “Three-decades of leaving Molenbeek as a mini-ghetto—that you can’t undo overnight.”
Belgium is not alone. It’s estimated that at least 5,000 European citizens have travelled abroad to wage jihad in recent years. Yet there is little coordination over, or tracking of, the threat. A European Union counterterrorism report, published in early March, noted that border officers at many ports of entry are still unable to access shared databases, including Interpol’s. And it reported that the watch list for foreign fighters contains only 2,786 names—with 90 per cent of them inputted by just five of the 28 member states.
Christina Schori Liang, a senior fellow with the Geneva Centre for Security Policy in Switzerland, says authorities in Europe have been slow to react to the evolving threat, particularly the new nexus of crime and terror. “Islamic State is actively recruiting young criminals inside prisons and we have no way to monitor or stop it,” she says. “It’s because these people have the know-how they need—they can use weapons and source bomb-making material.” In many ways, says Schori Liang, ISIS behaves more like a high-tech start-up than a terrorist organization, offering a strong brand identity, customizing its message for each market, and recruiting via incentives like good pay, free homes and health care, even romantic partners. These are powerful lures in Europe’s banlieues and ghettos. “They’re taking all the misfits and social outcasts and people who have never felt at home and creating this identity for them,” she says. “It’s more of a social movement now—it’s jihadi-mania.”
Ever since 9/11, and the bombings that followed in Bali, Madrid and London, security services around the world have been searching for an easy and reliable way to identify at-risk young Muslims and halt the process of radicalization. But those seeking common threads are often frustrated. “There is no profile, in a simple sense,” says Lorne Dawson, a University of Waterloo professor and the co-director of the Canadian Network for Research on Terrorism, Security and Society. “It’s a unique combination of many, many variables. And it really does go down to some really important personal identity issues.” Even amongst those who answer the call to jihad, only a subset are willing bring the war back home, or become suicide bombers. Dawson, who began his career studying cultists, says there are many similarities. Most young converts are idealistic, rebellious and naive about the way the world actually works. It’s possible, given time, that many would outgrow their allegiance.
That’s what seemed to be happening with regards to al-Qaeda around the time of Osama bin Laden’s death in 2011. The brand was no longer cutting-edge. ISIS’s innovation was to set themselves up as a state and declare the caliphate while fighting a clear-cut villain in Syria, Bashar al-Assad. “It’s so much more concrete, real and dramatic to people,” says Dawson. “They’re doing something and they look successful.”
It may take years for Europe to get a handle on the threat within its borders. This week, Jan Jambon, Belgium’s interior minister, acknowledged as much. Despite an investment of $884 million in security over the past two years, safety is elusive. Some of the fixes are obvious. “The kamikaze Bakraoui was sentenced to 10 years in prison, but he was free on parole after not even five,” said Jambon. “That’s no small thing.” Other problems, decades in the making, will take much longer to solve. “We’re going to win the fight,” vowed the minister, “but Islamic State can still create a lot of worry.”
They already have.