I asked my French colleagues where they thought these amounts of arms could have originated, given that we were in gun-controlled France. “Belgium,” came the prompt reply with a deep certainty.
The reason Belgium has a problem dealing with the weapons black market is the same reason the country can’t come to grips with its criminal-jihadist menace: The country is run by a decentralized administration, in a federal nation riven by divisions between French-speakers and Dutch-speakers.
In the field of law enforcement, the extreme decentralization and lack of coordination among various entities can be comical. In the old days, Brussels, which is divided into 19 communes or boroughs, had one police force for each commune — that’s 19 police forces, each policing between 20,000 and 150,000 people. They now have been consolidated into six police forces — still insane for a city with a population of 1.4 million. The failure of information and data sharing among various agencies is so acute, a researcher confessed to a Reutersjournalist days after the Paris attacks, that, “in Belgium, there’s a problem with data management. Nobody knows how many illegal weapons there are in Belgium. … The reality is we have no idea.”
The debate around Molenbeek, Brussels’ most infamous borough, turned deeply political after the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, with center-right politicians blaming the Socialists, notably Philippe Moureaux, Molenbeek’s mayor from 1993 to 2012, for the unhappy state of affairs. In a Nov. 17 column in the Belgian daily Le Soir titled “Molenbeek: Merci Philippe!” Alain Destexhe, a senator from the conservative-liberal MR (Mouvement Réformateur) party that is part of the ruling coalition, accused Moureaux of “clientélisme” and cronyism. According to Destexhe, his political rival willfully turned a blind eye to the worsening situation within his constituency while courting community leaders in return for electoral victories. “For 20 years,” Destexhe noted in French, “a kind of omerta reigned,” where anyone who tried to break the silence or call attention to the problem was labeled an “Islamophobe or racist.”
Certainly when journalist Hind Fraihi, a Belgian of Moroccan descent, published her book Undercover in Little Morocco: Behind the Closed Doors of Radical Islam in 2006, she was dubbed a traitor by her community and criticized by the liberal press. Ignoring voices of alarm from within the community and labeling them “self-hating” Arabs or Muslims is a common theme in left-liberal circles. As the discourse on Islam in the United States and Europe gets genuinely racist and Islamophobic with the likes of Donald Trump and all sorts of nasty European right-wing politicians, this tendency to shush people from the community raising alarm bells will become only more acute in leftist circles.
This of course is a pity since the left — or progressives, or whatever you want to call them — will only be ignoring members of the community who actually have a deep understanding of the social dynamics at play. And they are the ones with the ability to raise early alarms when they spot something amiss. The majority of Muslims, we all know, have no patience for the Islamic State-style nihilistic nonsense passing for Islam. But in a democracy, all – and I mean all — opinions must be heard as long as they don’t incite violence.
In Belgium, alas, few mainstream officials genuinely understand their Muslim fellow citizens. Unlike France, which has a long history with the North African and sub-Saharan African Muslim world, Belgium has no colonial history with Muslim-majority regions. Most Belgian Muslims —estimated to be between 320,000 to 450,000, or about 4 percent of the population — are of Moroccan origin, followed by those of Turkish origin. Belgium’s history with Muslim communities dates back only to the postwar economic boom years, when low-skilled workers from the villages of Morocco and Turkey began working in Belgian coal mines and factories, with migration peaking in the 1960s.
But while Europe offered the sort of economic opportunities for which the 1960s generation of migrants was grateful, their children have been not so lucky. The economic downturn since the late 1970s saw the closure of Belgian coal mines and heavy industries, leaving areas of urban blight. Belgium’s national unemployment rate, hovering around 8 percent, climbs to more than 20 percent among the youth population. Among Belgians of Moroccan or Turkish origin, that figure can double to around 40 percent. Add high unemployment to the mix of poor policing, fuddled administration and services, and you have the perfect breeding grounds for marginalization and radicalization. Tiny Belgium today has the dubious distinction of being the country with the highest per capita numbers of nationals or residents who have traveled to the Islamic State-held Syria-Iraq badlands.
To be sure the bulk of Belgium’s Muslims want nothing to do with the Islamic State. But for those unemployed youths with few job opportunities and easy access to drugs and arms-dealing rackets, places like Molenbeek are a home away from home, where old, idealized codes of conduct from the rural heartlands their parents left behind can be transplanted to a cold, dreary Brussels hood.
Here in Europe, those codes of conduct, which place hospitality and kinship above the law, serve as ties that bind. And it was those ties that helped Abdeslam hide for four months under the noses of the Belgian security services. In the end, it was family and friends, not ISIS operatives, who helped Europe’s most wanted man hide from the law. “Abdeslam relied on a large network of friends and relatives that already existed for drug dealing and petty crime to keep him in hiding,” said Belgium’s federal prosecutor Frederic Van Leeuw shortly after the capture. “This was about the solidarity of neighbors, families,” he told Belgian state broadcaster RTBF.
The problem, of course, is that there’s growing evidence of small, compartmentalized jihadist cells operating in places like Molenbeek across the European continent. These cells will be bound together by codes of conduct that put loyalty above all else. But they may not necessarily know what another cell may be plotting and planning. For law enforcement services, there is no alternative but to understand and try to infiltrate these networks. The time for excuses and maintaining that the problem is too big to contain is long over. Understaffed security services? Well, boost training and hiring programs. Not enough Arabic-speakers and people of Arab origins in the services? Well, for crying out loud, it’s time to reach out to the most economically marginalized of marginalized sections of the population. If places like Molenbeek need to be refurbished, revitalized, and reintroduced into the national mainstream, well do it, Belgium. We’re as tired of blaming Belgium as Belgians are of being blamed.