How Belgium's Bumbling Bureaucrats Boosted Europe's Terror Threat

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Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel, left, and King Phiippe, right, attend a ceremony outside of the terminal at Brussels International airport following bomb attacks in Brussels metro and Belgium's airport of Zaventem, Belgium, on March 23. Reuters/Frederic Sierakowski/Pool

As the world sends its sympathy to the victims of the recent terror attacks in Brussels, the most fervent prayer to be uttered for Belgium itself is that it finally wakes up. The incompetent Belgian government, its bureaucratic law enforcement agencies and its half-hearted intelligence services deserve as much blame for the slaughter as the murderers.

For more than a decade, the bumblers in Belgium have stood by as terrorist hotbeds emerged in their midst. Speaking to Newsweek on condition of anonymity, frustrated intelligence officers in other European countries slammed the Belgians, saying that they have failed to do the basic legwork to detect terrorist cells in neighborhoods around Brussels, with their efforts instead focused on groups that all but announce themselves, such as Sharia4Belgium, whose leaders were prosecuted last year. Belgian law enforcement has few contacts or informants in the areas around Brussels where terrorists live. Only in the last few months has Belgium started pumping greater funding to intelligence efforts and to recruiting more personnel.

Belgium's lackadaisical approach to Islamic terrorist cells has placed much of the continent in danger, which is why government officials from the European Union and the United States have been quietly pressing its leaders to shape up, intelligence officials say. The terrorists who have set up shop in Brussels are only a short drive from Paris, Strasbourg, Amsterdam, Berlin, Cologne, Frankfurt and Berlin. Few in the intelligence community were surprised to discover that the November terrorist attacks in Paris were organized in Belgium, led by a Belgian named Abdelhamid Abaaoud, and included a suicide bomber and shooter from Belgium. That attack was the deadliest in the European Union since the 2004 Madrid train bombings, whose perpetrators included Belgians in a terrorist cell that was part of the Groupe Islamique Marocain Combattant.

The Belgian connection to Islamic terror turns up again and again. The murder of Ahmed Shah Masoud, leader of the Northern Alliance and a Western ally who would have been capable of striking back at al Qaeda after the attacks of 9/11, was murdered days earlier by men who had conspired in Brussels. In 2005, a Belgian named Muriel Degauque blew herself up in an attack in Iraq, making her the first known female suicide bomber from the West. Amedy Coulibaly, a French Muslim who went on a shooting spree in Paris after the Charlie Hebdo attacks, obtained the Škorpion vz. 61 submachine gun, vz. 58 assault rifle and Tokarev pistols he used from criminals in Belgium, where intelligence officers say it is relatively easy to buy illegal weapons.

How is it that one comparatively tiny European country – which also has the highest per capita number of Muslims who have traveled to Syria to fight with ISIS – is tied to so many major terrorist operations? The disheartening answer is that through inefficiency and ineptitude, the Belgian government has allowed the nation to become a terrorist breeding ground.

Belgium is a federal state and a bilingual country, which has contributed to a paralytic incompetence of its government. Officials who speak French distrust those who speak Flemish. This leaves the Dutch-speaking areas of the north in frequent, disorganized conflict with the French speakers in the south that creates patchwork layers of bureaucracy and competing police agencies that undermine law enforcement and security efforts. (The capital of Brussels has six different police agencies.) Because of this extreme decentralization, Belgian investigators are renowned for not communicating with colleagues in other agencies and locations. Such disorganization allows terrorists to organize without detection.

If members of a terrorist cell in Brussels drove about an hour northeast and set themselves up in the Netherlands, they would face an organized counterterrorism effort involving the national intelligence services, national police, military and financial analysts who all work together and share information through a government agency called the Counterterrorism Information Center.

The lack of cooperation in Belgium extends to its allies as well. An American intelligence officer who spoke on condition of anonymity told Newsweek that it is not only difficult to obtain cooperation from the Belgians, often it is a battle to even figure out which of the many agencies at odds with each other actually has the information being sought. Indeed, in what this officer described as a result of misplaced pride or embarrassment, the Belgians refused to meet with American government officials seeking information about the investigation in Brussels in the aftermath of the Paris attacks.

This operational blundering and non-cooperation contributed to the success of the attacks in Brussels. Belgian officials acknowledged that they should have acted on an alert that a criminal from their country had been arrested in Turkey on suspicion of terrorist activity. Whichever agency or division of the government received the warning did nothing, and that criminal was one of the suicide bombers in Brussels. That man's brother, also one of the suicide bombers, had been wanted for months in connection with the Paris attacks, but Belgian law enforcement never found him.

The vast majority of the areas in Belgium where the terrorists conspire are in the semi-circle of deprived inner-city neighborhoods around Brussels known as the croissant pauvre, or poor crescent, including Schaerbeek, where Salah Abdeslam, one of the plotters of the Paris attack, maintained a safe house. The worst of these locations, Molenbeek, a neighborhood of about 100,000 people northwest of the center of Brussels, has been all but surrendered to Muslim gangsters. (One of the cars used for the November attack in France contained a parking ticket from Molenbeek.) That community has a large Islamic population and brutal unemployment, but also a burgeoning middle-class and commercial area.

Peaceful Muslims in Molenbeek who speak to journalists, much less law enforcement, are subjected to the same kinds of threats to them and their families that turn up in gang-infested neighborhoods in the United States. Not that anyone needs threats to keep quiet; talking to the police can be pointless. Law enforcement even shrugs when evidence of potential terrorists comes in over the transom; one Molenbeek mother interviewed by CNN who attempted to turn in her son to the police before he traveled to Syria to join ISIS says law enforcement simply showed her the door, mumbling they were powerless to do anything. That man, who easily could have returned to join in a terrorist attack, was killed in Syria.

After the Paris attacks, Belgian officials finally began to publicly acknowledge that they had been ignoring the festering danger in Molenbeek. Belgium's interior minister, Jan Jambon, said in November that "we don't have control of the situation in Molenbeek at present" and added that authorities needed to "clean up" the area. The failure to have a handle on the situation in Molenbeek was not the result of bad planning, but dereliction. "I see [Islamic terrorism] is almost always related to Molenbeek,'' said the country's Prime Minister, Charles Michel, shortly after the Paris attacks. "It was a form of laxity, to allow this. We are paying the bill for past laxity."

These belated admissions of government negligence – something experts say persists even in the aftermath of Paris – are greeted with eye-rolling disgust by intelligence agencies that have been trying for years to prod Belgium to act.

"Belgians have been counting on these guys knowing not to shit where they eat,'' one American intelligence official says. "The government could be comfortable bickering among themselves so long as the bad guys drove to other countries to blow up their bombs. Maybe now they'll figure out it isn't a strategy to just hope only people in other places get killed."