Europe, after Brussels

How can it meet its challenges without giving up its way of life?

Written by Tara Schlegel | Updated: March 29, 2016 12:03 am
Belgian soldiers patrol as people pay tribute to the victims of Tuesday's bomb attacks at the Place de la Bourse in Brussels, Belgium, March 26, 2016.  REUTERS/Francois Lenoir Belgian soldiers patrol as people pay tribute to the victims of Tuesday’s bomb attacks at the Place de la Bourse in Brussels, Belgium. (Source: Reuters)

Belgian investigators have identified three of the four perpetrators of the Brussels attacks. It can already be said that they belong to the same group as those who committed the Paris attacks four months ago. The tragedy is thus all the greater for Brussels, as they could have been arrested.

Two of the four suicide bombers in Brussels were brothers holding Belgian nationality. Brahim el-Bakraoui, who attacked Zaventem airport, was already on a wanted list but solely for organised crime. Sentenced to nine years in 2010 for having fired on the Belgian police, he had been on conditional release since 2015 but was wanted for violating the terms of his release. His younger brother, Khalid, is the one who killed 20 commuters at the Maelbeek metro station. He had earlier been sentenced to five years for car-jacking.

There are many links between the el-Bakraoui brothers and the November 13, 2015 Paris attacks. Khalid had rented an apartment in Forest, a Brussels commune, where a routine search on March 15 almost turned into a disaster. Six policemen, almost unarmed, found themselves face-to-face with three individuals who didn’t hesitate to fire. Two fled while the third was gunned down. He was an Algerian named Mohamed Belkaïd, one of the Paris masterminds. He was the one whom the terrorists texted, ahead of firing on the Paris cafés on November 13.

But that wasn’t all the Forest apartment yielded. Investigators also found traces of Salah Abdeslam, the only surviving Paris attacker. Abdeslam was arrested three days after the Forest raid, on March 18. Voices are raised in Belgium now about precautionary measures that should have been taken after his arrest. It’s also known that Khalid had rented two apartments last autumn, which served as the terrorists’ hideaway on the eve of the Paris attacks. Apart from the el-Bakraoui brothers, the police have also identified a third suicide bomber at Zaventem, Najim Laachraoui. He was probably the bombmaker — investigators have found his DNA on the explosive belts used in Paris. For a long time, these would-be terrorists criss-crossed borders. Thus, Laachraoui and Abdeslam were stopped at border controls in Austria in September 2015 — and waved on.

On Wednesday, the police raided the apartment from which the three airport bombers set off. They found 150 litres of acetone and 15 kg of TATP, a suitcase full of nails and detonators. In a garbage bin in front of this Schaerbeek building was found Brahim el-Bakraoui’s laptop, with a message presented by the federal police as his “suicide note”. There’s no reference to the Islamic State, but el-Bakraoui says he’s being “hunted down”, is “in haste”, and “no longer sure what to do”, as he’s “wanted everywhere”.

The Islamist connection that links the perpetrators of Brussels to those of Paris shoots down the “lone wolf” theory and supports the network theory. As early as January 2015, a week after the Charlie Hebdo attack, Belgian police dismantled a jihadi network in Verviers. At the time, Abdelhamid Abaaoud (the other Paris mastermind) escaped by the skin of his teeth.

On Tuesday, French President François Hollande declared, “Through these attacks in Brussels, it is all of Europe that has been struck.” It’s true that the Maelbeek station is less than 300 metres, as the crow flies, from the European Commission and the Council of Europe. Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the Commission, went ahead with the daily midday press briefing so as not to succumb to the terrorist threat. The people of Brussels, who gathered spontaneously at Place de la Bourse on Tuesday evening, gave the impression that this tragedy was inevitable. For, over the past few years, Belgium has become a particularly fertile jihadist hotbed. According to the Soufan Group, 470 Belgians have gone to fight in Syria or Iraq. In terms of proportion to the population, this is the largest European contingent. In Antwerp, the Sharia4Belgium organisation was active from 2010 to 2012.

What’s the explanation for this generation, often born and raised in Belgium, going astray? Some point to discrimination: If 8.5 per cent Belgians are unemployed, this scourge affects 25 per cent of North African or Maghreb-origin workers. This rate is sometimes two-times higher among the youth in certain neighbourhoods. In this hotbed without hope, radical discourse takes root more easily. The other explanation is the strong influence of Saudi Arabia. In the 1960s, King

Baudouin entrusted the building and management of the Grand Mosque in the Parc du Cinquantenaire to Riyadh. Since then, Saudi Arabia has been preaching and organising the bulk of Belgian Islam. Entrusting the keys of a religion to a foreign power isn’t free of risk. The imams started preaching a Salafist Islam, in an essentially “pacific” or non-violent form, explains Michaël Privot, a Belgian Islamic scholar. But this rigid form of Islam has “an extremely polarising and hierarchising approach to society, which only creates chasms with non-Muslims”.

The Molenbeek commune (where the Sheikh of the Grand Mosque has followers) has become a haunt for terrorists. This isn’t a recent occurrence. Tunisian Dahmane Abd el-Sattar, one of the assassins of Ahmad Shah Massoud, had long resided in Molenbeek. One of the 2004 Madrid attackers, Hassan el-Haski, had also lived there. More recently, Mehdi Nemmouche, who killed four at the Jewish museum in Brussels in May 2014, passed several weeks in Molenbeek. Ayoub el-Khazzani, who boarded a Thalys train for Amsterdam on August 21, 2015 armed with a Kalashnikov, also stayed in Molenbeek.

Since the 1990s, Belgium has been a nerve centre for arms trafficking in Europe. Albanian and Chechen mafia networks were able to gain a foothold in eastern Belgium. It’s thought that it was in Charleroi that Amedy Coulibaly procured the weapons he used to attack the kosher supermarket in Paris on January 9, 2015.

Faced with these challenges, Europe is struggling to find a joint response. Ten years have elapsed since some states wished to adopt the common PNR (passenger name records), which would centralise information on flight passengers. It was only in December 2015 that the Committee on Civil Liberties of the European Parliament adopted it. However, some MEPs still refuse to vote in favour, as they consider it prejudicial to liberties.

How can one be forearmed against terror without giving up the insouciance of our way of life, our tradition of hospitality, and individual freedoms? This is the real challenge that European societies must meet.

Translated from French.

The writer is a reporter and presenter on France Culture, a part of Radio France, who specialises in immigration, justice and education issues.