A deep sense of anxiety pervaded the streets of Brussels this week as the city was put on lockdown following warnings of a “serious and imminent” terrorist attack.
As is often the case at times of national emergency, time seemed to slow down as the daily churn of life continued but at a slower pace. Most people chose to stay indoors and work from home. The skies over Brussels were unseasonably blue, the wintry sun shining down on a city witnessing the biggest presence of armed forces since the second World War.
Despite a display of Belgium’s idiosyncratic humour on Sunday – people tweeted pictures of their cats when police urged residents not to divulge details of ongoing raids on social media – the events have proved deeply unnerving for the country.
Belgium has long had to manage the deep cultural and political divide between French-speaking Wallonia in the south and the Flemish- speaking area of Flanders. But confirmation that the country is battling an active terrorism cell has brought a realisation that it is faced with a third cultural force: that of home-grown jihadism.
As details emerge of those involved in the Paris attacks and many more who aided them, a picture is emerging of their backgrounds. The case of the three Abdeslam brothers, for example, provides a snapshot into the background and social conditioning that lead some to choose the route of terrorism and others to reject it.
Thirty one-year-old Brahim Abdeslam blew himself up outside the Comptoir Voltaire cafe on Friday, November 13th. His brother Salah (26) is believed to be the attacks' only surviving perpetrator and is still on the run, while a third brother, Mohamed, was detained after the attacks but released without charge.
The brothers and their younger sister were born to Moroccan parents and grew up in the Molenbeek district of Brussels. Mohamed has worked for the local council for 10 years and has been speaking candidly to the media since his arrest, urging Salah to surrender.
Brahim and Salah were involved in running a cafe in central Molenbeek which was shut down by police on November 5th under suspicion that it was selling soft drugs. Brahim's ex-wife has spoken of how her husband spent his time during their two-year marriage watching TV while the couple struggled on unemployment benefit of €1,000 a month. Salah, who once worked as a tram conductor, frequented gay bars in Brussels, according to a report in the Sunday Times.
According to locals, the Abdeslam brothers had a regular upbringing, playing football and socialising, though Brahim and Salah had spent time in prison in Brussels, where they are believed to have met Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the orchestrator of the Paris attacks.
High level of jihadism
Evidence of jihadist activity in Belgium has been known for some time – a link with Brussels was uncovered as far back as the
bombings of 2004. So what is the explanation for the high level of jihadism in Belgium, a country with the highest number of foreign fighters per capita in Europe?
Rik Coolsaet, professor of international relations at the University of Ghent, says groups such as Islamic State tap into a sense of cultural and social disaffection. "The motivation for joining is the widely shared feeling, especially among second generation migrants, that they have no future, that no matter what effort they make they will never be accepted as fully French or Belgium."
He says that, despite the characterisation of the problem as “radical Islam”, religion has very little to do with the problem, with people recruited primarily online. “This is not old-fashioned radicalisation. The religious knowledge of these people is superficial. They don’t go to the mosques, and have no thorough religious knowledge. It’s a ‘cut and paste’ Islam.”
He also queries the perception that Belgium has a more serious problem with foreign fighters than France, arguing that the French figures are underestimated because of the difficulty in monitoring the banlieues.
But the reasons behind the phenomenon are the same for each country, he said. “Islamic State offers a new escape, an alternative to deviant behaviour like drug-trafficking or rioting. Islamic State can say to people: ‘I can offer you a job, a wife or partner, a family. You will belong to an alternative society.’ For a small group of people this is attractive.”
How Belgium tackles that problem of social disaffection will be a long-term challenge, not just in this period of national soul-searching.