Why Are Terrorists Drawn to Belgium?

 

During a house search 20 years ago, Belgian policemen investigating the Algerian GIA network discovered an Arabic document. Page one had a dedication to al-Qaida and Osama bin Laden. It was the first jihad manual ever found in Europe. The GIA was only one of many terrorist organisations to put down roots in Belgium. Over the past few decades the country has turned out to be a platform for Action Directe, the Red Army Faction, Eta, the IRA and several other terrorist groups.

The importance of Belgium for global terrorism became even clearer on 9 September 2001. Two days before the attacks on the Twin Towers, in northern Afghanistan, commander Ahmed Shah Massoud – the last man standing against the Taliban – was killed by two terrorists who had entered Afghanistan with Belgian passports.

Other recent terrorist events can be traced back to the Belgian capital. Mehdi Nemmouche, who in May 2014 killed four people in the Jewish Museum in Brussels, had been staying in the suburb of Molenbeek. Early in 2015 in the Belgian town of Verviers the Belgian police dismantled a terrorist group with links to Molenbeek. Ayoub el-Khazzani, who in August 2015 was planning to attack the Thalys train service from Amsterdam to Paris, got on the train in Brussels after staying in Molenbeek.

 

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Abdelhamid Abaaoud – reportedly one of Islamic State’s most active operators and suspected of being behind Friday’s attacks in Paris – is from the Molenbeek suburb of Brussels. Photograph: Reuters

 

The reasons why Belgium is attractive to terrorists are diverse. First there is its strategic location between France, Germany and the UK. In two hours one can cross Belgium by car, and because Belgium is part of the Schengen area its outside borders are open, making it extremely easy for terrorists to enter and leave the country quickly.

Second, the anonymity of Belgium’s capital appears to offer an ideal hiding place, with some sympathisers for the terrorist struggle – individuals, not communities – willing to give a helping hand to plotters. The fact that the name of Molenbeek turns up so often is obviously worrying.

Molenbeek – one of Brussels’ 19 districts– has a population of about 100,000, with around 30% of foreign nationality and more than 40% with foreign roots. Unemployment is higher than 25%, with youth unemployment even higher. Young inhabitants, often with Muslim backgrounds, do not get the same chances in the labour or housing market, and testify how in their everyday lives they are confronted with racism. They have the perfect profile to be prone to radicalisation. If the Belgian state had put more effort into integrating migrant communities, the potential for radicalisation would be significantly smaller today.

Third, the Islamic experience in Belgium has characteristics that differ from other European countries. There is a lack of local imams; most of the imams have been imported from abroad or educated there. Belgian security services point to an important religious influence from Wahhabi Islam, “sponsored” by Saudi Arabia through the Grand Mosque in Brussels.

Fourth, Brussels has the reputation for being a place where you can easily buy illegal firearms. The fact that the city has no fewer than six different police zones makes the fight against illegal arms trafficking and other forms of organised crime cumbersome and inefficient.

Last, Belgium has a relatively small security apparatus. Although Brussels is the diplomatic capital of the world, Belgian state security only has some 600 employees (the exact figure is classified information). Its military counterpart, Adiv, has a similar number. That makes just over a thousand intelligence officers to secure a country that hosts not only Nato and the EU institutions but also the World Customs Organisation, the European Economic Area, the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (Swift), the European Organisation for the Safety of Air Navigation (Eurocontrol), another 2,500 international agencies, 2,000 international companies and 150 international law firms.

One does not need to be 007 to understand that the security challenge is huge – not only taking into account terrorism but also espionage and cybercrime. The disregard of the Belgian political world for intelligence and the lack of an intelligence culture have allowed terrorist groups to proliferate.

More than 250 Belgians have left the country to fight alongside jihadis in Syria and Iraq; about 75 have died in combat and 125 have returned. According to the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence, Belgium has the highest rate of foreign fighters per capita of all Europe.

Belgium’s anti-terrorism organisation Ocad has a “consolidated list” of more than 800 people who are on the radar of the Belgian intelligence services in relation to foreign terrorist fighters. Yesterday, two well-informed sources within the Belgian security services independently confirmed to me that two of the Abdeslam brothers currently being investigated in relation to the Paris attacks and Bilal Hadfi, the suicide bomber at the Stade de France, were on that list. The question is why this information could not prevent the attacks in Paris. Standing Committee I, which controls the Belgian intelligence services on behalf of the government, has announced an official investigation. Meanwhile, the citizens of Belgium cross their fingers.

 

 

News
Paris Terror Attacks
Nov 20 2015, 9:22 am ET

Paris Attacks: Commando Captain Shares Details of Bataclan, Saint-Denis Raids

An NBC News exclusive interview with the head of the Swat team that entered the Bataclan theatre to rescue the hostages recounts the horror of the theatre and the ensuing battle with the terrorists inside the building. For security reasons, the officer is known only as Jeremy and has his face covered

When elite French commandos stormed the Bataclan concert hall last Friday night, they found hundreds of people laying on the floor, blood everywhere — and an eerie silence.

Jeremy, captain of the commandos, revealed details of how the operation played out in an exclusive interview with NBC News’ Lester Holt — on condition that his last name not be used.

Among the revelations:

  • Commandos had to ignore the moans of the wounded to find the terrorists.
  • The jihadis identified themselves as “soldiers of the caliphate.”
  • “Negotiations” with the shooters included “classic political demands” about French operations in Syria.
  • The negotiations were an excuse to buy time to murder innocents.

“We discover like a hell on earth,” Jeremy said. “No sound. Nobody was screaming. Nobody were moving because they were afraid of the terrorists.”

Uniformed police first to respond to the scene had managed to shoot dead one terrorist, but two more remained holed up in a second-floor room — with hostages.

Jeremy’s unit — the BRI — systematically and carefully went room to room. That meant the commandos had to ignore the pleas of the dying and wounded — which was brutal, Jeremy said.

“A lot of people… ask us to help them because they were wounded, bleeding and we had to say no — we have to find first the terrorist,” he told NBC News. “It was difficult for the guys, for the men on the team.”

 Terror Ringleader’s Death Raises Fears of Intelligence Failures

The two remaining terrorists referred to themselves as soldiers of the caliphate. They were upstairs on the left side of the concert hall and down a hallway, behind a small wooden door, Jeremy said. When the BRI approached, one shouted to get back.

 When elite French commandos stormed the Bataclan concert hall last Friday night, they found hundreds of people laying on the floor, blood everywhere — and an eerie silence.

Jeremy, captain of the commandos, revealed details of how the operation played out in an exclusive interview with NBC News’ Lester Holt — on condition that his last name not be used.

Among the revelations:

  • Commandos had to ignore the moans of the wounded to find the terrorists.
  • The jihadis identified themselves as “soldiers of the caliphate.”
  • “Negotiations” with the shooters included “classic political demands” about French operations in Syria.
  • The negotiations were an excuse to buy time to murder innocents.

“We discover like a hell on earth,” Jeremy said. “No sound. Nobody was screaming. Nobody were moving because they were afraid of the terrorists.”

Uniformed police first to respond to the scene had managed to shoot dead one terrorist, but two more remained holed up in a second-floor room — with hostages.

Image: Lester Holt interviews the head of the Bataclan theater raid
NBC Nightly News Anchor Lester Holt interviews the head of the Bataclan theater raid. Joe Gabriel / NBC News

Jeremy’s unit — the BRI — systematically and carefully went room to room. That meant the commandos had to ignore the pleas of the dying and wounded — which was brutal, Jeremy said.

“A lot of people… ask us to help them because they were wounded, bleeding and we had to say no — we have to find first the terrorist,” he told NBC News. “It was difficult for the guys, for the men on the team.”

Related: Terror Ringleader’s Death Raises Fears of Intelligence Failures

The two remaining terrorists referred to themselves as soldiers of the caliphate. They were upstairs on the left side of the concert hall and down a hallway, behind a small wooden door, Jeremy said. When the BRI approached, one shouted to get back.

‘Hell on Earth’: Leader of Bataclan Raid Describes What He Saw Inside  0:44

“I try to speak with them and he told me that he wanted to negotiate,” Jeremy said. “So I said OK, give me a phone number.”

The phone number provided was radioed back to a police negotiator. Jeremy said that around five “very short” phone calls took place, during which “classic political” demands about French action in Syria were invoked.

“It was not really a negotiation,” he added. “They want just to prepare themselves for the final assault. They don’t want to negotiate anything.”

The unit knew time was critical — there were a lot of hostages and the green light for a full assault was quickly given by command. The team took a moment to collect themselves and prepared to push through the door, stacking up behind a heavy bulletproof shield.

When the commandos pushed through the unlocked, wooden door, one of the terrorists immediately opened fire. More than 25 bullets from his AK-47 struck the shield, and one round injured a BRI commando, striking his hand and causing him to fall down.

“We cannot take care of him, we still go,” Jeremy said of the difficult choice to push forward without helping the wounded commando. The unit had agreed before going in not to stop if anyone was injured.

“We can’t afford pause,” he explained. There were hostages.

Despite the barrage of bullets, the BRI did not fire because they saw around 20 hostages between them and the shooter, Jeremy explained.

“It was too risky… for the hostages but we keep going,” he added. They pushed on with the shield — and unsure footing. There were unexpected obstacles, like a set of stairs which caused a shield to tumble and leave some commandos exposed.

Watch videos – NBC News

NBC Exclusive: SWAT Team Commando Describes Attack Scene as ‘Hell on Earth’4:35

Ringleader of Paris Terror Attacks Confirmed Dead After Police Raid | NBC Nightly News

 

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