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Brussels Attacks: Why Terrorist Cells Could Thrive in Belgium

ISIS claimed responsibility for the two attacks in Brussels on Tuesday morning – one at Zaventum airport and another in Maelbeek metro station. Bombs were detonated, leaving over 30 people were dead and hundreds severely injured. Days after Salah Abdeslam was arrested in Brussels for his role in the November Paris terrorist attacks, the catastrophic events have done little to assuage fears that Europe is becoming less secure and safe.

For many here in Europe, the question of whether Brussels is simply Europe’s new reality points worryingly to ‘yes’. Significantly, most of the people involved in the Paris and Brussels terrorist attacks were European citizens. Abdeslam grew up in Brussels – the same suburb where he fled following the November attacks and where he was arrested last Friday.

European security officials had warned that they were bracing for an imminent attack but the role of sleeper terrorist cells in both Europe and abroad seems to be much larger than originally thought. There are many European-born terrorist like Abdeslam and his allies scattered in cities and in towns across the continent. Belgium, however, appears to be a hotbed of terrorist cells in particular.

A small country in Western Europe – with the tendency to be dwarfed by its much larger neighbours, France and the Netherlands – Belgium nonetheless is home to the headquarters of the European Union. It is a country that is split by two factions, Wallonie (French speaking) in the south and Flanders (Dutch speaking) in the north. Tensions remain high between these two groups. Over the years, there has been little cooperation and unity between Dutch-speaking and French-speaking Belgians. In 2007, and again in 2010, the state went without a government for six months due to fighting between the groups. The nation lacks national cohesion, only separate stories told in Dutch or French.

With competing national identities, it can be easy to see how terrorism may thrive in Belgium. The lack of unity has brought many economic struggles – Belgium’s debt is much higher than the European average. High levels of unemployment have hit the nation hard, especially its disenfranchised immigrant youth. 6% of Belgians identify as Muslim, with a large majority being recent immigrants. Among Belgian Muslims, there are high levels of unemployment, low educational achievement, poor integration and inconsistent government funding. Furthermore, in Brussels, as elsewhere in Europe, they tend to live in clusters, such as Molenbeek (the aforementioned neighbourhood of Adbeslam) or in suburbs just outside the city centre (the same as in Paris). The combined elements of perceived exclusion in Belgian society, as well as limited participation in daily life, can easily breed resentment and dejection. It allows for terrorism to fester and for radicals to target the weak and especially vulnerable.

The International Institute for Counter Terrorism (IICT) recently published a report examining the significant social problems facing Belgium. It reported that foreign-born Belgian residents have unemployment rates more than twice that of native-born Belgian citizens, a burden that falls on neighbourhoods such as Molenbeek.

At the heart of the problem lies the lack of integration between immigrants and citizens. Resentment builds when one does not fundamentally feel a part of society. The lack of support afforded to immigrants in Belgium may be a cause of last week’s heartache. It not a problem restricted to Europe, but one that affects myriad countries across the world. Belgium and other governments must work to ensure that no one is left behind in their attempts to combat terrorism.

Questions remain about to what to do now. A generation of young and angry terrorists are hell-bent on their wish to destroy parts of society that they see as contrary to their beliefs. The pain felt in Brussels should not be repeated. However, tackling the roots of terrorism remains a divisive and difficult process, especially in a divided Europe.

Zoe Meers is the Europe and Eurasia Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.

This article can be republished with attribution under a Creative Commons Licence. Please email with any questions or for more information.

Image credit: Dr Les (Leszek - Leslie) Sachs (Flickr: Creative Commons)

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