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Brussels bombings reveal Europe’s sociopolitical flaws

Last Tuesday, three bomb blasts shook Brussels, two of them in Zaventem airport and the third in Maelbeek metro station. Most analyses tend to attribute the attacks to the March 19 arrest of Belgian-born French national, Salah Abdeslam, who was accused of playing a key role in the Paris terror attacks in November last year.

A girl paying tribute to the victims of last Tuesday’s bomb attacks at the Place de la Bourse in Brussels. As a result of the lack of a centralised integration discourse, Belgium has done poorly in integrating its Muslim minority. The same criticism can also be levelled against France and, to a certain degree, the United Kingdom and Germany. 

Photo: Reuters

A girl paying tribute to the victims of last Tuesday’s bomb attacks at the Place de la Bourse in Brussels. As a result of the lack of a centralised integration discourse, Belgium has done poorly in integrating its Muslim minority. The same criticism can also be levelled against France and, to a certain degree, the United Kingdom and Germany.

Photo: Reuters

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Last Tuesday, three bomb blasts shook Brussels, two of them in Zaventem airport and the third in Maelbeek metro station. Most analyses tend to attribute the attacks to the March 19 arrest of Belgian-born French national, Salah Abdeslam, who was accused of playing a key role in the Paris terror attacks in November last year.

However, there is little evidence to support this claim. The Brussels attacks appeared too complex to have been organised in only four days. Moreover, in claiming responsibility for the bombings, the Islamic State (IS) terror group said they were in retaliation against Belgium’s participation in the US-led air strike against IS, and not Abdeslam’s arrest.

The attacks in Brussels should be seen as a part of the group’s agenda of revenge against countries that are bombing it in Syria.

Its main strategy is to boost its jihadi credentials by making headlines and attracting recruits, especially in light of its territorial losses in Iraq since 2015. Unfortunately, the attack in Brussels will most likely set into place a spiral of violence throughout Europe. Unless tackled through a balanced approach of law enforcement and community-based policies, the Islamist extremist threat in Europe is likely to increase exponentially.

The carnage last Tuesday came at a bad time for Belgium, a country of 11 million which was already in the spotlight due to the high number of Belgian foreign fighters with IS and for the now-infamous Brussels municipality of Molenbeek, often referred to as “Europe’s jihadi capital”.

Belgium has an estimated 500 nationals fighting for IS, the highest per capita number among European Union countries.

Molenbeek has around 100,000 inhabitants — the majority of whom are North African Muslims — and the highest rate of unemployment in Belgium, estimated at 30 per cent.

The neighbourhood became famous for being the birthplace of some jihadi masterminds: Abdessatar Dahmane and Bouraoui el-Ouaer, the pair who killed the anti-Taliban commander Ahmed Shah Masoud; Hasan El Haski who planned the Madrid bombings in 2014, Mehdi Nemmouche who killed four people at the Brussels Jewish Museum in 2014 and the Abdeslam brothers who participated in the Paris attacks in November 2015. Salah Abdeslam was also captured in an apartment in Molenbeek, after being sought by the French and Belgian authorities for the past four months.

Overall, the Belgian community of Islamist militants follows closely the dynamics of the French jihadi community. The Islamist extremist threat in Belgium is greater than anyone had assumed prior to the November Paris attacks.

By virtue of its location in the heart of the European Union, the threat to Belgium is by extension a threat to the whole of the EU. Yet this terrorist threat has also highlighted the shortcomings of many European countries in dealing with terrorism and its root causes.

FOREIGNERS IN THEIR OWN COUNTRY

Belgium, as a state, is characterised by deep linguistic and administrative divisions. The Dutch-speaking Flemings govern the northern region of the country separately from the French-speaking Walloons in the south.

The country has six governments altogether. In the context of the current terrorist threat, this fragmentation negatively impacts the law enforcement structure and the security apparatus, as well as the national policy-making process.

Brussels alone has six different police departments that are infamous for a lack of cooperation and the poor quality of their officers. Confronted with an internal threat of terrorism, Belgium found itself with a shortage of 150 intelligence officers on its usual quota of 750.

This trend is evident throughout the European Union, where collaboration between intelligence agencies is deemed imperative, but does not exist.

In addition to the short-term security measures against terrorism, a successful long-term response to Islamist militancy involves a community-based approach. In reality, many EU countries are often criticised for rampant racism, xenophobia and Islamophobia, and ignoring larger sociopolitical dynamics that are detrimental to their Muslim communities.

Martin Conway, a European history professor at Oxford, noted how the 22 mosques in Molenbeek appropriated the responsibility of providing the people with schooling and social service because public officials allegedly failed to carry out the conventional role of the state.

Regarding the flow of immigrants, it was the Belgian state that in a 1964 agreement with Turkey and Morocco opened its door to foreign labour and explicitly invited their families along for demographic purposes. The trend continued until the 1980s when the political discourse in Belgium, with the likes of far-right and secessionist political parties such as Vlaams Blok, took on a xenophobic note.

As a result, second- and third-generation Belgian Muslim youth were labelled as foreigners in their own country and tourists in their heritage countries.

As a result, they drifted towards the mosques in search of financial support and a sense of community.

To adequately tackle the terrorist threat in Belgium and the EU, a more robust integration policy is required. Unfortunately, political fragmentation in Belgium has also impacted the conceptualisation and implementation of such an integration policy.

While Flanders emphasises multiculturalism, the French community advocates a more assimilationist approach. At a federal level, the policy of integration remains largely within the boundaries of an assimilationist perspective which traces its origins to the 1989 debates on the integration and insertion of refugees into the Belgian society.

As a result of the lack of a centralised integration discourse, the country has done poorly in integrating its Muslim minority. The same criticism can also be levelled against France and, to a certain degree, the United Kingdom and Germany.

While assessing the internal terrorist threat in Belgium and throughout the EU, it is important to bear in mind the security and sociopolitical shortcomings that fuelled the crisis.

The claim that “Islam has a problem” ought to be replaced by a comprehensive understanding of what causes youth to embrace a violent interpretation of Islam. Moreover, comprehensive counterterrorist policies must include both security and community-based components if meant to succeed.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Aida Arosoaie is a research analyst at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University. Related topics addressed in this analysis will be discussed at the upcoming RSIS conference on ‘Islam in the Contemporary World’, which will be held on April 28.

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