Brussels Attacks: These attacks are a home grown problem

Published: April 10, 2016
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Brussels' Place de la Bourse has become a focal point for the city's grief PHOTO: AFP

It seems like us Pakistanis are not the only ones who get caught in compromising situations nowadays. Case in point right now is Belgium. Despite knowing about the link between Molenbeek, notoriously dubbed as Jihadi Central and only three miles to the west of Brussels, and the brutal Paris attacks, how is it that Belgian authorities remained so complacent? After all, they had conducted multiple raids at this particular neighbourhood, hadn’t they?

Let’s say somehow they overlooked the potential threat of a hotbed of extremism existing nearby due to some error, but were previous incidents not warning enough? With events like the Charlie Hebdo massacre, the 2014 shooting at the Jewish Museum in Brussels and the foiled Thalys train incident in 2015. Furthermore, Turkish authorities in Ankara had informed the authorities in Belgium about Ibrahim El Bakraoui, one of the bombers, who was arrested on charges of deportation last year, but released on the grounds of no evidence of a criminal record.

Yet, the bombers in the recent airport attack were known to the authorities in Brussels as ‘petty criminals’. In fact, following the carnage at Brussels’ Zaventem Airport, an airport employee is said to have made the following comment,

“We’ve never practiced an evacuation before”

The Maelbeek metro station was struck an hour after the airport was attacked, leading to 20 deaths. A full hour later. Whatever happened to contingency planning, considering these locations were soft targets? Casualties could have been prevented if stations and public venues had been evacuated and shut down after the first attack, but they were not.

Belgian authorities admitted to the lapses in judgement and security, but if stringency would have been on their agenda, the Brussels attack could have been averted and innocent lives could have been spared.

Moving on, the terrorists were as inept as the authorities looking for them. They ordered a cab for the airport which was apparently not commodious enough for five explosive cases. Therefore, they had to wheel two out of five cases back to their apartment on the fifth floor. They also happened to dump a laptop with planning information and sensitive communication in a garbage can, on a street tracing back to one of the bombers previous addresses, to make sure the police found it conveniently. All this would have been farcical was it not for the magnanimity of the tragedy which left 35 dead and over 300 injured.

What’s more is that the gratitude we have been pouring all over the authorities is rightly deserved by a Moroccan Muslim cab driver. Yes, Muslim, for it was him who led the police to the apartment and it was him who helped the authorities discover the identity of the bombers.

So much for ‘a lack of cooperation’ from the European Muslims in combatting terrorism, huh?

With everything said and done, our Pakistani security services must definitely feel at par with their hapless European counterparts. Our government can finally relax by just pointing out corresponding shortcomings in Europe, especially after incidents such as Gulshan-e-Iqbal Park, Lahore, while chanting the mantra of,

“If they can’t, how can we with our limited resources?”

Although, premature allegations against innocent victims and arresting their relatives is never prudent.

But of course, our authorities had to make just that mistake. They arrested a victim’s relative. I wonder if Yousef’s family has received a public apology from the government. Belgian authorities also released Faycal C, a suspect, under similar circumstances. False accusations do little to bolster police credibility and the public’s confidence during such testing times.

These attacks are symptomatic of Belgium’s underlying problems. The richer Dutch-speaking Belgian north, comprising 60 per cent of the population, want to break away, separating Flanders from French speaking Wallonia in the south. The southern area is relatively impoverished since the diminishing of resources such as coal, steel and heavy industries, which originally recruited the first generation of immigrant workers from North Africa.

Now, the immigrants’ second and third generations, who have become Belgian citizens, are stuck in poor, decaying and crime-ridden areas such as Molenbeek and are desperate to break out.

These densely populated areas, with distrust of authorities, make for a fertile recruiting ground among the ignored, disillusioned and petty criminals without a real stake in local society. It is no wonder, then, that Belgium has the largest contingent of its citizens in Syria or that the Brussels attacks’ perpetrators had prior encounters with the law. One of the El Bakraoui brothers had done time for armed robbery. Another one of the men accused of carrying out the attacks once worked as a cleaner at the European Parliament. Yes, the European Parliament.

The Brussels bombers and suspects (Photo: AFP/Vincent LEFAI, Jean Michel CORNU)

Salah Abdesalam, once the most wanted man in Europe, and someone whose arrest panicked Brahim El Bakraoui into hastening the attacks, is reported to have dealt with drugs as well as indulged in substance abuse, all the while frequenting gay bars in Brussels. It appears prejudices were set aside in his recruitment process.

The 2010 Belgian General Elections led to a political crisis, where 11 elected parties could not agree on forming a government, which inevitably left Belgium without an elected government for a record 589 days. The Belgian linguistic divisions not only shape their political landscape, but affect their government structures and any attempts to reform them. It fragments their law enforcement and affects their intelligence sharing with other European countries. Some analysts have described Belgium as a failed state for its systemic problems; clearly this distinction is no longer exclusive to the third world.

The real problem is that these inherent shortcomings have created space on the fringes of society for ISIS to operate, leaving Belgium and its neighbours, such as France, vulnerable. France has similar issues revolving around the integration of second and third generation citizens. The free movement of people in the Schengen Zone, along with the arrival of refugees, are perceived to exacerbate these threats within the European Union (EU).

What matters more than the framework behind any attack, is its lasting impact on innocent people, be it Brussels or elsewhere.

Ibrahim El Bakraoui, along with Najim Laachraoui, triggered the explosives at the airport killing 11 people along with themselves. Where this attack left many victims like Walter Benjamin, who tragically lost a leg. He was flying out to visit his daughter in Israel. It also created heroes such as Hassan who rescued Walter, ignoring all personal risks. Walter reunited with Hassan and said from his hospital bed,

“I hope people will be intelligent enough to understand that 99.99 per cent of the Muslim population is extraordinary.”

Another airport survivor, Sebastien Bellin, a Brazilian-born professional basketball player who was seriously injured in the departure lounge, said he pushed himself to survive for his two young daughters. Let’s hope he can get back to playing basketball for a living in Belgium.

In a coordinated attack at the Maelbeek metro station, Khalid El Bakraoui detonated explosives which killed 20 people, including Loubna Lafquiri, a young woman whose funeral prayers managed to gather over 2000 mourners at a mosque. This working mother of three children was a gym teacher at a private Muslim school. One can only imagine the loss the family and community.

The mayor and deputy mayor of Molenbeek attended her funeral to demonstrate their solidarity with the Muslim community and reiterated the attacks touched all nationalities, cultures and backgrounds.  Unfortunately, this is lost on bigots who fail to realise that bombs do not discriminate and that Brussels, with its large Muslim minority had its own share of Muslim victims.

The imperative ‘do more’ has continually been directed towards Pakistan, much like a knee jerk reaction. No one is chanting ‘faire plus’ (get to know each other better) or ‘meer doen’ (do more) to the Belgians, despite their shortcomings. Perhaps it would be offensive to say anything given Brussel’s significance; after all, it is the de facto capital of Europe that houses major European Union institutions and NATO.

It is shocking though, given Molenbeek’s close proximity to these institutions, that Europeans have not resolved problems of lawlessness and poverty, which are partly to blame for breeding terrorism.

Terrorism is not a novel concept for Europe; West Germany endured three decades of sustained attacks at the hands of the Baader-Meinhof Gang. Perhaps Europeans are hoping that this too will pass into history, though this is highly unlikely without the resolution of the on-going conflicts in Syria and Iraq, to which it is inextricably linked.

For now, the Brussels attacks refuse to become yesterday’s story; it remains an on-going live situation. ‘Devastated infrastructure’ has already delayed the reopening of the airport, critical as it is to ‘Eurocrats’ and ‘Natocrats’. The police have carried out 13 new raids in their continuing investigation and a suspect was shot for allegedly plotting another terror attack. Eight suspects associated with the attacks are still on the loose. Meanwhile, related arrests were made in Germany and the extradition of a suspect from Italy also kept the Brussels attacks in the news.

While Afghan asylum seekers, fleeing violence at home, now find themselves even more unwelcome; and the EU is caught trying very hard to justify its dubious deal with Turkey for sending these asylum seekers back. What we cannot forget, just like we are wisely reminded each time, is that these attacks are a home grown problem and are at the very heart of Europe.

Let’s hope the Belgian security services get their act together.

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Raving Malang

Raving Malang

Scribbler’s mediocre mind was warped by worthless education leaving him perennially temperamental and argumentative yet occasionally conducive to reason but rarely compliant to any authority. Now prone to Ranting and resigned to life long learning to reverse the effects of education. The author tweets as @RavingMalang (twitter.com/RavingMalang)

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