Bomb-shocked Brussels adjusts to life after attacks
The Belgian capital, one of Europe’s most Islamic cities, faces up to domestic threat
On guard: special police in Brussels on Thursday, as investigations continued into the terror attacks on the city. Photograph: Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP/Getty
The drone of helicopters and the faint sound of sirens hung heavy in the air. Time seemed to stand still in the skies above Brussels on Tuesday. In the EU quarter of the city the streets were empty. Hours earlier terror had struck at the heart of Europe.
At 9.11am Khalid el-Bakraoui, a 27-year- old Belgian man, detonated a nail bomb in a carriage as it pulled out of Maalbeek metro station.
An hour earlier his older brother Ibrahim, wearing a black glove on his left hand to hide the trigger he was to activate, detonated a suicide bomb hidden in a suitcase in the departure hall of Brussels Airport, at Zaventem.
Najim Laachraoui, a 24-year-old jihadist, detonated a second bomb. A third airport bomber, whose device failed to detonate, fled the scene and, at time of writing, is still on the run.
“For all of us March 22nd will never be a day like any other,” King Philippe said as he addressed his shaken country. The Belgian prime minister, Charles Michel, called it a black day. “What we feared has happened,” he said.
But even as he spoke people were asking questions. How was an attack of this magnitude not stopped if the prime minister and his senior ministers were fearful of it happening? Why were known criminals still managing to evade capture? What would motivate young men who had been born and raised in Belgium to inflict such carnage? Why Belgium?
Far from a ghetto
Stepping into Molenbeek’s main square is like entering a different world. Gone are the glistening facades of the European institutions and the cobbled square of Brussels’ medieval Grande Place, just a few kilometres.
Instead the streets teem with everyday life, as women in headscarves and other locals walk in and out of shops, stopping to chat to neighbours and friends.
Unlike the infamous Parisian banlieues, the source of much social tension in the French capital, this is far from a ghetto. The elegant, balconied turn-of-the-century apartment blocks that are characteristic of much of urban Brussels also line many of the streets winding through this area.
On Rue de Quatre Verts, the street where Salah Abdeslam, a lead suspect in last November’s attacks in Paris, was captured by police a week ago, life goes on. At one end of the street people are busy shopping. A few doors down children are being collected from a primary school. Snatches of Arabic and heavily accented French fill the air.
Samer is an 18-year-old Belgian whose parents are originally from Lebanon. An economics student at the Université Libre de Bruxelles, he is working in his family’s shop today, a few doors down from where Abdeslam was captured. Like many in the neighbourhood he is stunned by Tuesday’s events. “I take that metro line to the university most days. On Tuesday I was here, thankfully.”
Unlike many of his friends, Samer and his sister, a pharmacist, went to school in the commune adjoining Molenbeek. “The schools here are not good,” he says.
What about radicalisation in the neighbourhood? “There are two problems. The police – they’re too relaxed: people are not scared of them – and the parents. There are lots of children who are on their own in the evening around the streets. They get involved in crime. It’s nothing to do with religion.”
Farther down the street two 24-year-old local men, Bilal and Mohamed, also stop to chat as they point out the house where Europe’s most wanted man was arrested. I ask whether people knew that Abdeslam was hiding there. “He was staying with a mother of his friend. No one knew he was there. Even if he left the house at night, with a hoody, it would be difficult to recognise anyone.”
Quietly spoken and friendly, the two young men, who were born in Brussels to Moroccan parents, describe growing up in Molenbeek. “It’s a normal area, but now this has happened.”
Both are looking for jobs. They say that recent events have had an impact on the area’s reputation. “Now when you are applying for a job, people notice the address,” says Mohamed.
Bilal, who attends a mosque around the corner, says it is difficult to explain why young locals have been radicalised. “They are weak. They are manipulated. The Koran forbids murder, so it is not a question of religion. What they have done is barbaric.”
A few doors down three women in headscarves who are collecting their children from school say they are equally stunned. “This is usually a quiet neighbourhood. I have lived here for 26 years,” says one. “It must be happening on the internet, behind closed doors. We are Muslim. Islam is a religion of peace, not of war.”
The revelation that the local brothers Salah and Brahim Abdeslam were protagonists in the Paris terrorist attacks has put this area on the global map. Another resident, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, masterminded the attacks.
But the roots of Belgium’s jihadist problem go beyond this small corner of Brussels and the events of recent months.
Alleged links between Belgium and international terrorism stretch back to the Madrid bombings of 2004, but the issue of radical jihadism first came to public prominence in Belgium around 2010. A group calling itself Sharia4Belgium emerged in the country’s second-largest city, Antwerp.
Its leader called for the introduction of Sharia law in Belgium. Its website mourned the passing of the Islamic caliphate and carried the now-familiar image of the black flag of jihadism. “As in the past, we [Muslims] have saved Europe from the dark ages, we now plan to do the same,” its website said, before police shut it down.
In September 2014, 46 members of the group stood trial under heavy security in Antwerp, accused of recruiting young men to terrorism. Only eight were present; the others were presumed to be fighting or to have died in Syria.
With the rise of Islamic State in the Middle East, international focus turned to Belgium as a breeding ground for European-based Islamic extremism.
By the end of last year more than 500 Belgians were believed to have travelled to Iraq and Syria to fight for Islamic State – the highest number of foreign fighters per capita in Europe.
In parallel, glimpses into Belgium’s terrorist network were beginning to surface. On a sunny Saturday afternoon in May 2014 a man walked into the Jewish museum in the centre of Brussels and shot four people dead. He was later named as Mehdi Nemmouche, a 29-year-old French citizen who had spent a year in Syria.
In January 2015 police killed two people after foiling a terrorist attack in Verviers. Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the 27-year-old who masterminded the Paris attacks 10 months later, was involved.
In August two US marines helped to foil an attempted attack by a man who boarded an Amsterdam-Paris train at Gare du Midi in Brussels.
But it was the revelation that the Paris terrorist attacks in November were plotted from Belgium that turned the international spotlight on the country. This week, tragically, Belgium switched from being the exporter of terrorism to the victim, as more than 30 people were killed and hundreds injured in twin attacks in the capital.
More worrying is the structural and administrative flaws of a system that spans a web of operational levels, from federal to local. Brussels alone has six police departments. The overlapping system is symptomatic of the administrative challenges of running a country that is effectively split into two distinct regions, Flemish-speaking Flanders, in the north, and francophone Wallonia.
As Prof Jochim Krause of the Institute for Security Policy at the University of Kiel says, “Belgium is a country which is overfederalised, where all kinds of state responsibilities are dispersed. In federal systems you have a high degree of separation of powers. Usually that’s a good thing, but in Belgium no one feels responsible for anything beyond a certain degree.”
Of more fundamental concern is the problem of radicalisation. Brussels has long had a Muslim population; like many former European imperial powers, it witnessed a wave of immigration in the 1970s and 1980s.
About 6 per cent of the population is Muslim – about the same as in the Netherlands – but most live in the cities, with the result that Brussels is one of the most Islamic cities in Europe.
It appears that the kind of Islamic fanaticism that propelled groups such as Sharia4Belgium, and surfaced in Britain during the time of the 2005 London bombings, has morphed into a different kind of militant threat, one that has moved away from the realm of the mosque and towards the internet and tight-knit criminal networks.
Virtually all the Paris and Brussels attackers were known criminals. Some analysts point the finger at the Belgian prison system as a possible den of radicalisation: the Paris bomber Abdelhamid Alhmouid and the Abdeslam brothers knew each other in jail.
According to Prof Rik Coolsaert of the University of Ghent, the root of today’s jihadists is social and cultural disaffection rather than “old-fashioned radicalisation”.
Immigrants, particularly second- and third-generation immigrants of north African descent, find it difficult to integrate into mainstream Belgian society.
As the Nigerian-born, Belgium-based writer Chika Unigwe put it recently, “Assimilation, for a Belgian with non-European roots, is a near-impossible task.”
As the dust settles on the March 22nd bombings the people of Brussels are adjusting to a new reality of living in a city faced with a permanent terrorist threat. In many way, however, that changed reality has already been in motion for some time.
Ever since the Jewish museum attacks, almost 20 months ago, security has been heightened around Brussels, reaching a new height in the week after the November Paris attacks. The presence of heavily armed soldiers has become familiar in the city, perhaps too familiar, projecting a sense of safety that was revealed to have been tragically misplaced.
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Today Belgium identifies itself as a quirky, unique nation in touch with the surrealist traditions of its most famous artist, René Magritte. At the height of the November terrorist threat Belgian residents began to tweet photographs of their cats, after police asked people to refrain from publicising the location of ongoing counterterrorism raids.
For many this was the perfect expression of Belgium’s laid-back, humorous attitude. For others it was not so funny, an illustration of a country that was disconnected from the serious security threat that it faced.
Before the terrorist events there was a sense that this disjointed, federal country that managed to embrace a deeply divided Flemish and French-speaking communities somehow worked.
“Belgium is the best remedy against patriotism,” the Belgian writer Geert van Istendael once said. Tragically, it seems, Belgium was unaware of another kind of deadly patriotism that was flourishing in its midst.