Ethnic and bureaucratic fault lines have made effective governance of the country almost impossibleby David Patrikarakos / March 22, 2016 / Leave a comment
Read more: What next for Molenbeek?
When terrorists struck Brussels this morning the act was as symbolic as it was destructive. The city is a pleasant, if slightly dull, capital of a minor European country, but as the seat of the European Union’s most powerful institutions it is in many ways the modern heart of Europe.
And this heart was struck hard. According to the latest reports bombs went off at Zaventem airport at 7am (GMT), killing 11 and injuring 81, while another struck Maelbeek metro station an hour later, killing around 20. A third bomb was found and destroyed. In the late afternoon Islamic State (IS) claimed responsibility for the attacks in a statement on the IS-linked Amaq agency. Charles Michel, Belgium’s Prime Minister, called it a “day of tragedy, a black day.”
A tragedy it undoubtedly was, the question is: was it surprising? Belgium first experienced jihadist terrorism in May 2014 when a gunman (who had recorded a video in which he appeared with the IS flag) opened fire at the Jewish Museum of Belgium in Brussels and murdered four people.
Then came the Paris terror attacks of November last year, which, it emerged, were planned in the Brussels suburb of Molenbeek, an area long known to intelligence agencies as hotbed of radicalisation. By some estimates, relative to its population Belgium has supplied more fighters to Syria than any other European country. It has a 11 million citizens, and 450 of them have travelled there.
Not all of this is unique to Belgium, though. Britain of course experienced its own terrorist atrocities on 7th July bombings in 2005 and, as a lead player in the War on Terror, is almost certainly at greater risk than Belgium from jihadist violence. But in this country we benefit from two things. First is the blessing of geography: being an island makes it harder for terrorists to smuggle arms and explosives in. And secondly, we have excellent security services.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for Belgium; and the problem runs throughout its security establishment. As Politico Europe reported in a piece at the end of last year, Brussels has 19 communes (boroughs), each of which, until recently, had its own police force. This organisational foolishness was partially rectified when the authorities slimmed the 19 down to six, but it remains an absurdity in a city of under 1.5m people.
Such decentralisation does not lend itself well to cracking down on jihadist threats, where the sharing and pooling and collating of information is a vital part of countering and then neutralising the threat.
The story of the country’s intelligence services is even more depressing. After the January 2015 Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris that the Belgian secret service (the Staatsveiligheid) was unable even to fill its desired quota of intelligence officers—a mere 750: totally inadequate to deal with the existent danger. This is a country wholly unequipped to deal with an ever-increasing jihadist threat.
But what is most worrying is that these problems are not localised. That is to say, they cannot be fixed by focusing attention to a specific area. They are, rather, the effect of overarching structural problems that strafe the Belgian state. The ethnic, linguistic and bureaucratic fault lines that divide Brussels and Flanders, the Flemish and Walloons, have made effective governance of Belgium almost impossible.
In 2010-2011 Belgium set a world record for a democracy going without an elected government when for 589 days opposing factions were unable to form a governing coalition and instead fought on everything from fiscal policy to alleged “linguistic imperialism.”
This so-called “ungoverned period” further splintered the country’s already fragile unity and, in part, paved the way for today’s events. When you can’t even form a government for over a year, effectively catching terrorists in the digital age (a tough task at the best of times) is likely to slip even further down the priority list.
All of which has brought us, miserably, to today. But what comes next is most critical of all. Trawling Twitter—a dispiriting experience at the best of times, let alone just after a tragedy when tweets cast (even) more heat than light—it is clear that many favour a “crackdown” (a term that manages to be both vague yet pregnant with ominously discernible meaning) on Muslim communities. This immoral and foolish impulse, which will only lead to the further alienation of Europe’s Muslim communities is exactly what IS wants, and must of course be resisted.
So must the desire by British politicians to hijack this tragedy for political ends. A terror attack in Belgium is not an argument for Brexit, despite what a few Brexiteers will almost inevitably try to have us believe.
It is, however, an argument for even greater vigilance by our intelligence services. It is only by neutralising (as far as is possible) the threat on a security level, that panic and intemperate actions can be avoided at the political and social levels.
Most immediately the Belgian government, surely aware of its own failings in this area, must reach out for assistance. France is the obvious partner here. The Belgians will need help if a repeat of today is to be avoided. They can’t do it on their own.