Belgians keep state of alert and sense of humour in balance

Brussels on alert but people tweet pictures of cats rather than police raids

Belgian soldiers on patrol in central Brussels on Monday. Photograph: Reuters/Benoit Tessier

Belgian soldiers on patrol in central Brussels on Monday. Photograph: Reuters/Benoit Tessier

 

A sense of quiet apprehension filled the streets of Brussels yesterday as citizens began the first full working day since the elevation of the security level to four over the weekend. Schools, universities and the Metro system remained shut all day. The streets were notably quieter around the city centre and EU quarters but many businesses were open.

In Ixelles, where I live, in the south of the city, it was business as usual as dry cleaners, fromageries and boutiques opened their doors. Larger businesses such as Ikea closed for the day, and most workers were given the option by employers of working from home.

In many ways Belgian citizens are used to living with the reality of a terrorist threat. Heavily armed police have been a familiar feature on the streets of the capital for at least a year, with enhanced security at the EU institutions, embassies and outside Jewish sites in particular. For months, heavily armed soldiers have been guarding Radio Judaica, a Jewish radio station I pass each day on my way to the EU quarter.

The murder of four people on a sunny Saturday afternoon in June last year in the city’s Jewish museum prompted a new wave of security here.

The police swoop in the town of Verviers in January, which resulted in the shooting dead of two suspected jihadist terrorists, led authorities to raise the national terrorist threat to three.

Paris attacks

Charles Michel

This was revised upwards to four, the maximum possible, last Saturday due to a “serious and imminent threat” of a Paris-style attack.

The stoic approach shown by residents of Brussels in the past few days was also accompanied by a quirky show of collective humour.

On Sunday evening as authorities urged social media users to stop communicating information on ongoing raids across the city, Twitter users responded by tweeting pictures of their cats.

To show their gratitude to the public for upholding the media blackout, the federal police tweeted a picture of a large bowl of cat food.

But on a more serious note, the revelation of Belgium’s terrorist links has raised serious questions about the country’s intelligence and security services.

On the run

Salah AbdeslamHamza AttouMohammed AmriBelgium

Belgium’s links to jihadist terrorism have long been known. A trial of more than 40 members of a group called Sharia4Belgium took place in Antwerp last year.

Residents of Brussels, and particularly the Molenbeek area, had links to the Jewish museum attack of June 2014, the Verviers raid in January and the foiled terrorist attack on a high-speed train travelling from Amsterdam to Paris in August. Roland Freudenstein, policy director of the Martens Centre for European Studies in Brussels says that one of the problems facing Belgium has been a “culture of denial” about an Islamic underground in Belgium.

The other is its fragmented police force ,which reflects the weakness of the state more generally in Belgium due to the complex structure of government in the country.

“The federal police force is comparatively weak. In addition there are police assigned to six different precincts. Effectively six autonomous police organisations in Brussels are working in parallel instead of under one command.”

The government has pledged €400 million in additional security spending and 520 extra police officers will be deployed. But whether this will be enough to address the problem of home-grown terrorism remains to be seen.

In the meantime, as armed police and soldiers patrol the streets of Brussels, people will be asking themselves if this is the new normal.

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