Even before bomb attack on March 22, it w European Union also become a capital European terrorism
The haphazardly governed city failed to stem a radical presence in its slums “People don’t poke their noses into other people’s business”
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