The Washington Diplomat / June 2016
By Larry Luxner
Belgium, a prosperous little kingdom that rarely makes headlines, lately has been grabbing lots of them — for all the wrong reasons.
Ever since March 22, when Islamic State suicide bombers killed 32 people and wounded 340 others more in twin attacks at Brussels Airport and the city’s metro system, commentators have trashed the Belgian government — and more specifically its disjointed security apparatus — for not taking the terrorist threat seriously enough. Some critics have even called Belgium a “dysfunctional divided country” that suffers from “linguistic apartheid,” while others have labeled it a prosperous yet failed state à la Iraq or Syria.
“The bomb attacks in Belgium offer new evidence of its security forces’ shortcomings in monitoring violent Islamist radicals, a failure that has allowed this country at the heart of Europe to become an incubator of terror,” warned a Washington Post story published the day after the attacks.
“For more than a year, terrorist plot after terrorist plot has been tied back to Belgium. How did this tiny nation become ground zero?” the Daily Beast demanded to know in an article headlined “Belgium Is Europe’s Terror Hotbed.”
Johan Verbeke, the country’s ambassador to the United States, thinks these barbs are unfair and exaggerated. In a recent interview, Verbeke said he refuses to be put on the defensive.
“Not getting headlines means you’re doing very well. Of course, when such a major event happens, it’s normal that the press gets interested, but the tendency is always there to sensationalize the news,” he said. “We are quite willing to have a discussion on the facts and figures — the merits of the case, the weak spots and the strong spots — but not the kinds of clichés we’ve been facing.”
Verbeke, whose son was near the scene of the subway attack when it happened but was not hurt, said Belgium’s 11 million citizens showed “resilience” following the worst tragedy to strike his country since World War II — in much the way that France soldiered on after the same Islamic State terrorist network massacred 130 people in Paris last November (an attack largely orchestrated by jihadists in Belgium).
The evening after the attacks, hundreds of people gathered at Place de la Bourse for a candlelight vigil whose theme quickly became “Je suis Bruxelles (I am Brussels)” — in a scene reminiscent of the solidarity shown in Paris after the Charlie Hebdo attacks in 2015.
“At that vigil, there was no desperation, no panic, no drama — on the contrary, there was a lot of respectful stoicism and a strong determination not to let ourselves be intimidated by a bunch of terrorists,” Verbeke said. “On day two, we went back to work, and the children went back to school. Intimidation is not in our vocabulary.”
By coincidence, Verbeke had just arrived from Brussels the night before the attack — and had seen for himself the heavy security at the city’s international airport. He was at his desk at the Belgian Embassy in Washington on Tuesday when news broke of the twin suicide bombings at the Delta Air Lines counter and near a Starbucks airport shop at 7:58 a.m. local time, and then on the metro only 75 minutes later.
“We were not totally surprised, because we knew there was a terrorist network active from before the Paris attacks,” he said. “Our investigations had started in late 2012, so we expected that something would happen.”
Verbeke said his government sent 55 terrorists to prison in 2014, 117 in 2015 and 209 just in the first three months of 2016. “This is tangible proof that we didn’t discover terrorism just after the Brussels attack,” he said.
In fact, the ambassador insists that the attacks took place when they did “not due to the failure of our investigations and law enforcement, but because of our success.”
The assault happened a few days after Belgian police captured Salah Abdeslam, the only suspect in the Paris attacks believed to have survived. Investigators speculate that Abdeslam’s arrest and subsequent interrogation may have pressured the Belgian terror cell to launch the Brussels attacks.
Verbeke also noted that Arab terrorists had originally planned to attack the Euro 2016 soccer tournament in France this summer. “Those guys knew we were closing in on them.”
Still, it’s hard to explain away nonsensical rules like the one that prevented Belgian police from raiding a flat where they believed Abdeslam to be hiding out because of a penal code that prohibited raids between 9 p.m. and 5 a.m. unless a crime is in progress (the code has since been amended).
Nor is it really logical that Brussels — a city of 1 million — should have six police forces, each answering to a different mayor. Or, for that matter, why an order to close the Brussels subway after the airport was bombed never made it to the right people because federal police apparently sent it to the wrong email address (though authorities say a shut-down would not have prevented the blast).
To many outsiders, Belgium is riven by division and dysfunction. The country has three Parliaments and three official languages: French, Dutch and German. The Brussels region alone has 19 municipalities. Ethnic rivalries and political gridlock gave Belgians the ignominious distinction of going without a functioning government for a record 541 days. After the Brussels attacks, Dutch-speaking Flemish nationalists promptly accused their French-speaking Walloon opponents of being soft on radicalism.
Likewise, the country’s overlapping labyrinth of local and federal police services is plagued by internecine turf battles, arcane rules, years of budget cuts and a lack of coordination. As a result, Belgium’s overwhelmed and undermanned security forces have struggled to keep track of hundreds of potential jihadists who traveled to Iraq and Syria. (The month before the Brussels attacks, the Belgian government had pledged to double police and intelligence spending, to nearly $450 million, and recruit an additional 1,000 officers by 2019.)
Those troubles are compounded by the fact that while many European nations share open borders, their security agencies are reluctant to share information with one another. Intelligence is often jealously guarded, cross-border coordination is haphazard and professionalism among different security agencies runs the gamut. That contrasts with the U.S., which spent vast sums of money after 9/11 to improve its security infrastructure.
“But the same cannot be said for our Continental cousins,” wrote Dartmouth College’s Daniel Benjamin in a March 22 Politico analysis titled “Is America Next?” He noted that Belgium is “an especially sad case” of bureaucratic turf wars.
“Deeply riven by political conflicts between its Flemings and Walloons over political reform, the country was distracted by a domestic political crisis that ran on and off from 2007 to 2011,” Benjamin wrote. “During much of this time, there was only a caretaker government, and the Belgians’ inability to improve their counterterrorism capabilities was a running frustration for U.S. officials.”
As the headquarters of both the European Union and NATO, Brussels is often considered the world’s second-most important capital after Washington. That also makes it an obvious target for jihadists opposed to everything the West stands for; it was no coincidence that the train blast took place at the Maelbeek metro station, only a short walk from several top EU institutions.
Seventeen of the dead were Belgian nationals; the rest were foreign nationals. Yet the death toll could have been far higher. Initially, the bombers had wanted to take more explosives to the airport but the suitcase wouldn’t fit in their cab. A powerful third bomb at the airport and another at the subway apparently weren’t detonated. And as the Wall Street Journal reported May 12, a much worse tragedy was averted mainly because the suitcase bomb being pushed on a luggage cart by the second suicide bomber, Najim Laachraoui, fell off its cart and exploded upward, blunting much of the deadly force. The first bomb was set off by Ibrahim el-Bakraoui, 29. He and his 27-year-old brother Khalid were convicted carjackers and bank robbers who later became radicalized by the Islamic State.
The Wall Street Journal also credits “solid police work” shortly before the attacks. “On March 21, the day before the Brussels attacks, Belgian prosecutors put out a wanted notice for Laachraoui after finding evidence that he had been in safe houses used by the Paris attackers,” said the newspaper. “One person familiar with the case said Laachraoui might have been pressured to commit suicide in the attack on the Brussels airport once his cover was blown.”
Yet Belgian security authorities also appear to have missed several clues as they hunted for terrorists in their midst.
In the most glaring example, the Washington Post reported the day after the attacks, Belgian officials apparently knew that Ibrahim el-Bakraoui had entered Turkey with the apparent intent of joining Islamic State militants in Syria — he was even stopped by Turkish officials and deported to the Netherlands — yet neither country acted on that information.
In addition, Laachraoui reportedly concocted the explosives used in both the Brussels and Paris attacks. “His DNA was found on explosives detonated in the November assault in Paris,” said the Post. “That suggests that Laachraoui had managed not only to elude capture in recent months but also to operate on Belgian soil” — for nearly four and a half months after Belgian authorities realized that the Paris attacks had been plotted mainly out of Molenbeek, a working-class neighborhood of Brussels that is considered a breeding ground for violent young jihadists (it was also home to one of the attackers in the 2004 Madrid train bombings and to the perpetrators of several other high-profile attacks).
For years, in fact, Molenbeek was considered a no-go zone by police forces, who largely left Muslim residents to their own devices in an effort to keep the peace. Peter R. Neumann, director of the International Center for the Study of Radicalization and Political Violence at King’s College London, told the New York Times that authorities and mainstream Muslim groups long ago abandoned Molenbeek “with an informal pact, that ‘as long as we don’t see you, we won’t bother you.’”
Many European countries, in fact, have grappled with ways to integrate disenfranchised Muslim communities, which arrived in Europe during a postwar industrial boom only to have their children face bleak job prospects and alienation. These second- and third-generation immigrants often live in poorer, isolated enclaves known as ghettos — unlike in the U.S., where Muslims tend to be more educated and well-off.
And unlike the U.S. — which also has the luxury of an ocean separating it from the war-torn Middle East — Europe has had thousands of its citizens travel to Syria and Iraq to join extremist groups.
Much has been made of the fact that between 450 and 500 Islamic State fighters in Iraq and Syria have come from Belgium. That’s more than any other EU state on a per-capita basis, according to published reports. In per-capita terms, the only countries that sent more foreign fighters to the Islamic State in 2015 were Jordan, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Turkmenistan and Albania — all countries with Muslim majorities.
In Belgium, by comparison, Muslims make up around 9 percent of the population. “That’s not nothing, but it’s not half the country either,” Verbeke pointed out. “The community, as such, is rather well integrated, and the result of our de-radicalization programs is that today you have only one-third the number of fighters leaving Belgium for Syria or Iraq than a year ago. De-radicalization is something we had been working on well before the attacks. In fact, the mayor of Vilvoorde was welcomed at the White House summit on countering extreme violence. He was a star.”
Verbeke added that the flood of Syrian refugees fleeing to Europe has little to do with terrorism in Belgium, since those behind the Brussels attacks were neither Syrians nor refugees, but French-speaking Moroccans who had been born and raised in Belgium.
“Those Moroccans now involved with the terrorist attacks are second-, third-, fourth-generation Belgians, educated in the Belgian system. The brothers, fathers and mothers of a lot of these terrorists have gone public, pleading with them to stop. You can’t say these Muslims as a whole are rotten. There are just some rotten apples in the community, and even then, they are criminals — and criminals you can find anywhere.”
The ambassador added: “No country is immune to these events. This is a European, if not a worldwide, challenge. Many of the guys we have now identified had links with people in Germany, the U.K., Holland and Italy. There were also connections with Sweden.”
Verbeke concedes that Belgium has had a problem integrating North Africans into its multilingual, Western culture, for several reasons.
“First, we had an organization known as Sharia4Belgium that was a very aggressive propaganda machine,” he explained. “They were the main source of recruitment of young people. This organization was dismantled in early 2015 and all of them are in prison. It was a spectacular trial. The second factor is the ‘pull factor’ where the internet stories written by people in Syria seduced some people to make the trip. A third factor is the problem of integration in some of these communities.”
He added: “Most of these terrorists have criminal pasts. So it’s not really terrorism that’s breeding there, but criminality. You put some Salafism and Wahhabism into the mix and you get a terrorist. And sometimes it takes only two or three months to radicalize them.”
Verbeke, 64, is no stranger to Arab culture. His first overseas posting, two years after entering the Belgian diplomatic service in 1981, was to Beirut. Nearly 27 years later — following assignments in Burundi, Chile, New York, Washington and back to Brussels — he returned to Beirut as the United Nations special coordinator for Lebanon, but left after a few months because of concerns about his safety. Verbeke served as Belgium’s ambassador to the United Kingdom from 2010 until coming back to Washington as ambassador in January 2014.
“Brussels is a very open capital. It’s one of the most cosmopolitan capitals in the world. Everybody is welcome, and there are not really ghettos,” Verbeke said. “Molenbeek is an exception, and even there, it’s far from a homogenous, Muslim place. I go there and enjoy chai in their cafés. We go to Arab restaurants, and they go to ours. There is no racism, separatism or anti-Semitism in our country.”
Despite the high concentration of Arabs that is obvious to even the most casual tourist in Brussels or Antwerp, Verbeke said he’s not at all worried that Muslims will one day constitute a majority of Belgium’s population.
“Their growth rate is slowing down. We are not going to be overwhelmed by Muslims,” he said, adding that “our Turkish community is very large, but they have been so well integrated — if not assimilated — that most people don’t even know we have a large Turkish community.”
For now, at least, Verbeke said fears of an immigrant influx hasn’t scared Belgians into right-wing extremism the way it has in, say, France, where Marine Le Pen’s National Front is now the country’s third-largest party, or in Austria, where Norbert Hofer of the far-right Freedom Party led the first round of presidential elections in April.
“The Belgians are not frightened,” the ambassador reassured us. “In the last elections just a year and a half ago, our extreme right wing was totally neutralized. We are rather smart people, and we don’t have right-wing hooligans. We go for centrist parties. Our government is a kind of middle-right government and very moderate. Radicalism in terms of party politics does not exist.”
Michael Leigh, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund, agreed with Verbeke in an essay titled “Belgium is No Failed State.”
He argued that it is “simplistic” to blame Belgium for Europe’s vulnerability to terrorism, pointing out that “every major security failure from Pearl Harbor to 9/11 and the Paris attacks last November” was followed by revelations of warnings that were ignored and of raw intelligence that wasn’t evaluated in a timely, effective manner.
“Despite Belgium’s multi-level system of governance, the country does better than many European states in rankings of the quality of justice, income equality and perceptions of corruption,” he said. “Belgium’s ‘linguistic wars’ have rarely degenerated into violence. The country has remained stable during the prolonged negotiations that often precede the formation of new governments.”
While Belgium cannot fix Europe’s problems by itself, Leigh suggested it can reduce the possibility of future terrorist attacks by improving coordination among the federal, regional and local levels — especially the 19 municipalities and six police forces that serve Brussels alone.
“For half a century, Belgium has made a major contribution to European security through NATO and the EU,” he concluded. “Instead of maligning the country, other Europeans should work with Belgium to overcome the EU’s mutually reinforcing crises and to ensure the survival of its major accomplishments, including the Schengen open internal borders system and the single European currency, the euro.”