Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Brussels Attacks Cast Light on Belgium's Identity Crisis

At Der Spiegel, "Postcard from a Failed State? Attacks Cast Light on Belgium's State Crisis":

With bombs set off in the airport and the subway system, the deadly Islamic State attacks on Brussels have struck the heart of the European Union. Belgium, once the nucleus of Europe, will now have to combat its reputation as a failed state.

Bart De Wever doesn't have much faith in his country. In fact, you can hardly call it a country, this artificial construct created sometime in the 19th century as the result of an accident of history, a power struggle among major powers. The centralized Belgian state is "slow, complicated and inefficient," says De Wever, one of the most powerful men in Belgian politics.

He represents a party that went into the last election campaigning for an end to this centralized state, and for an independent Flanders, which it argued would be more viable than Belgium, a broken construct.
De Wever heads the strongest party, the conservative right-wing New Flemish Alliance (N-VA). He is not part of the government, but rather the mayor of Antwerp, and yet he knows that people in Belgium pay very close attention to what he says. He's sitting under chandeliers in the Gothic city hall, in a room with dark wooden wall panels. It's a sunny Tuesday in February, four weeks before the Brussels attacks. Salah Abdeslam is still on the run, and police haven't tracked him down in Brussels' Molenbeek neighborhood yet. The government is still searching for the sole surviving Paris attacker but have been unsuccessful so far. The government is trying, but it hasn't turned up much yet. Belgium is receiving poor grades, but so is Europe.

De Wever calls German Chancellor Angela Merkel's refugee policy an "epochal mistake," and he complains that integration in Belgium already isn't working today. "This is our problem," he says. "We were unable to offer them a Flemish version of the American dream." His message is that Antwerp is still better off than Brussels, which could be called a cesspool.

De Wever likens the way politics is done in Brussels to the manner in which workers renovate the city's crumbling art nouveau buildings: some new wiring here, something patched up there. "Politicians in Belgium often work like craftsmen in old houses: they putter away without any sort of blueprint." De Wever, sitting in his office on a spring day in Antwerp, has little faith in this country. He doesn't know yet that his lack of confidence will later be confirmed in the worst of ways.

The attack on Brussels, on March 22, 2016, came from inside the country. More than 31 people died and more than 270 were injured, and the victims included people from more than 40 nations.

In the apartment where one of the perpetrators, Ibrahim El Bakraoui, had lived, at Rue Max Roos 4 in the Schaerbeek neighborhood of Brussels, police found about 200 liters of chemicals, detonators, a suitcase full of nails, an Islamic State (IS) flag and 15 kilograms of acetone peroxide, an explosive material. Najim Laachraoui, 24, who also lived there, was apparently a bombmaker of sorts for IS. Forensic investigators found his DNA on two of the explosive belts after the Paris attacks. The two men took a taxi to Brussels' Zaventem Airport, where they allowed no one to touch their luggage. Then, at 7:58 a.m., they blew themselves up. A nail bomb was detonated at Gate B, near the American Airlines ticket counter.

Khalid El Bakraoui, 27, Ibrahim's brother, blew himself up in a subway car at the Maelbeek metro station, near the European Commission building. It was 9:11 a.m.

The killers chose places of transit, sites where anyone could be targeted. An airport and a metro station are places where everyone goes. No place is safe. Forget it. That was their message.

IS Infrastructure in Europe

The attacks were delivered four days after the arrest of Salah Abdeslam. Investigators now know that it was a mistake to assume that IS, which claimed responsibility for the attack, favored the "lone wolf" approach. Since the Brussels bombings, it is clear that Islamic State has created its own infrastructure in Europe, under the radar of most intelligence services, cells consisting of first, second and third-tier militants. If the first tier is unable to act, the second tier takes over and prepares the next attack. The Brussels bombers were already involved in the Paris attacks. There were logistics experts who provided them with apartments and weapons, there were explosives experts and there were people who maintained communications with IS in Syria.

It's clear that there was a network on which Salah Abdeslam could rely. Documents from the Belgian and French authorities paint a picture of a tightknit group in which everyone protected everyone else, and that made the Belgian security forces look like fools. Salah apparently moved about freely in Molenbeek, where he even went to a barber. The mayor of Molenbeek says there is an "omertà" in the community, a code of silence reminiscent of the Mafia.

The groups are part of international networks, and the terrorists had an advantage over security services: They were perfectly in command of cooperation across European national borders...
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