How Brus­sels be­came a ji­hadist cap­i­tal

The hap­haz­ardly gov­erned city failed to stem a rad­i­cal pres­ence in its slums “Peo­ple don’t poke their noses into other peo­ple’s busi­ness”

Bloomberg Businessweek (Asia) - - CONTENTS - −Carol Mat­lack

The ac­cused ring­leaders of last Novem­ber’s Paris ter­ror at­tacks came from Brus­sels; so did the weapons used in an as­sault on a kosher su­per­mar­ket in Paris last year. A Brus­sels res­i­dent killed four peo­ple at the city’s Jewish Mu­seum in 2014; last Au­gust, a heav­ily armed man boarded a Paris-bound train in Brus­sels and tried to at­tack pas­sen­gers be­fore be­ing over­pow­ered.

How did ji­hadism take root in a city that’s one of Europe’s safest and wealth­i­est—not to men­tion the head­quar­ters of NATO and other se­cu­rity-fo­cused in­ter­na­tional or­ga­ni­za­tions?

There are two sides to Brus­sels. One is com­fort­ably middle class, with Euro­crat salaries push­ing gross do­mes­tic prod­uct per capita to more than €60,000 ($67,000). Brus­sels’ bour­geoisie en­joys fine cui­sine, good schools, safe neigh­bor­hoods, leafy parks—for much less than they’d pay in Lon­don or Paris. The city is also “live-and-let-live, peo­ple don’t poke their noses into other peo­ple’s busi­ness,” says Peter Rus­sell, a na­tive Scot who’s lived hap­pily in Brus­sels for nine years, run­ning his own pub­lic-re­la­tions firm.

The other Brus­sels holds a quar­ter of its res­i­dents, who live in poverty in neigh­bor­hoods such as Schaer­beek and Molen­beek, an old in­dus­trial area near the city cen­ter that is the home of the sus­pected Paris at­tack ring­leaders. Al­most 40 per­cent of Molen­beek’s res­i­dents are Mus­lim, the chil­dren and grand­chil­dren of North Africans and Turks who came in the 1950s and ’60s to work in Bel­gian fac­to­ries. Bel­gium is now a post-in­dus­trial state, and un­em­ploy­ment in Molen­beek is near 30 per­cent, more than twice the rate in more pros­per­ous parts of Brus­sels. So­cial in­equal­ity is “no ex­cuse” for ter­ror­ism, says Dirk Jacobs, a so­ci­ol­o­gist at the Free Univer­sity of Brus­sels who stud­ies im­mi­grants. “But it’s cre­ated a fer­tile ground.”

Brus­sels isn’t the only city where ji­hadists have been re­cruited. And as last year’s Paris at­tacks high­lighted, gov­ern­ments across Europe failed to share in­tel­li­gence that might have thwarted the as­saults. “Europe doesn’t have any­thing like the Pa­triot Act, which Amer­i­cans have used to im­prove in­tel­li­gence gath­er­ing,” says Sim Tack, di­rec­tor for in­tel­li­gence col­lec­tion man­age­ment at Strat­for, a con­sul­tant on geopol­i­tics in Austin. “In Europe, the con­cept of civil lib­er­ties is much more pro­tected.”

The prob­lem in Brus­sels won’t be easy to fix. It’s not even clear who could fix it, given the city’s hap­haz­ard

gov­er­nance. With a pop­u­la­tion of 1.2 mil­lion, Brus­sels has “six po­lice de­part­ments and 19 dif­fer­ent mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties,” Bel­gian In­te­rior Min­is­ter Jan Jam­bon said in a speech last year. He then com­pared Brus­sels to huge New York. “How many po­lice de­part­ments do they have? One.”

Squab­bles be­tween Flem­ish- and French-speak­ing re­gions have led na­tional au­thor­i­ties to hand over more power and tax rev­enue to their re­gional coun­ter­parts. One re­sult is a short­age of law en­force­ment per­son­nel at the na­tional level: The govern­ment ad­mit­ted last year that its 750-per­son se­cu­rity ser­vice had 150 slots un­filled be­cause of bud­get con­straints.

The coun­try’s lead­ers, dis­tracted by lin­guis­tic and cul­tural quar­rels, “were un­able to de­velop an in­tel­li­gent pol­icy” to draw im­mi­grant fam­i­lies into main­stream so­ci­ety, says Leo Neels, di­rec­tor of the Itin­era In­sti­tute, a Brus­sels-based think tank fo­cus­ing on so­cial is­sues. Neels and oth­ers have long ar­gued that Brus­sels, a bilin­gual city that’s home to the coun­try’s big­gest im­mi­grant pop­u­la­tion, should be des­ig­nated as a fed­eral district sim­i­lar to Wash­ing­ton, D.C., with a uni­fied govern­ment. Politi­cians have re­jected the idea, he says.

Un­der Bel­gium’s con­sti­tu­tion, or­ga­nized re­li­gions deemed to of­fer “so­cial value” are of­fi­cially rec­og­nized by the govern­ment, which pays cler­ics’ salaries and pen­sions. But when Is­lam was granted of­fi­cial sta­tus in the 1970s, Bel­gium ac­cepted Saudi Ara­bia’s of­fer to fi­nance new mosques and send Saudi-trained imams to of­fi­ci­ate. Un­like in other Euro­pean na­tions where home­grown Mus­lim in­sti­tu­tions have taken root, “no ef­fort was made to pay for in­fra­struc­ture and clergy linked to Bel­gian so­ci­ety,” so­ci­ol­o­gist Jacobs says. Many Bel­gian mosques to­day op­er­ate out­side the state-au­tho­rized sys­tem and are run by for­eign-trained fol­low­ers of the rad­i­cal Salafist sect, he says. In an ef­fort to bring more mosques into the state sys­tem, the govern­ment an­nounced plans to spend more than €3 mil­lion to pay 80 new imams.

Religious fer­vor alone doesn’t drive young men from Brus­sels to join the ter­ror­ists, ac­cord­ing to Rik Cool­saet, a pro­fes­sor of in­ter­na­tional re­la­tions at Ghent Univer­sity who has stud­ied ji­hadist re­cruit­ment. Many re­cruits, in­clud­ing the lead­ers of the Paris at­tacks and the two Brus­sels sui­cide bombers, were petty crim­i­nals, he says.

Strict Mus­lims shun al­co­hol—yet Paris sus­pect Salah Ab­deslam, cap­tured in Brus­sels on March 18, had owned a bar in Molen­beek with his brother, who blew him­self up in Paris. “Join­ing [Is­lamic State] is merely a shift to an­other form of de­viant be­hav­ior,” Cool­saet wrote in a pa­per ear­lier in March. “It adds a thrilling, larg­erthan-life di­men­sion to their way of life— trans­form­ing them from delin­quents with­out a fu­ture into mu­ja­hedeen with a cause.”

The bot­tom line Brus­sels’ frac­tured mu­nic­i­pal govern­ment, as well as the weak­ness of Bel­gium’s cen­tral au­thor­i­ties, gave ter­ror­ists an open­ing.

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