This article is very revealing why Belgium was so easily exposed to these terror attacks; with political instability and growing evidence of Muslim extremism just being a few of the many reasons.
Belgium seems an unlikely location for a hub of European extremist violence. But there are good reasons for the concentration of radical activity in the small state. Many of the problems that lead to militancy are common across the world, developing and developed, and though they may differ in severity, have the same consequences.
These include a sizeable and poorly integrated Muslim minority, high levels of youth unemployment in that community, the availability of arms, a highly developed communications and transport network passing through the country, authorities that have been often complacent and always under-resourced, and domestic political instability.
Like other countries, Belgium has also seen the apparently inexorable spread of a violent ideology through social media and among peers which, if it does not directly encourage violence, certainly promotes a hate-filled, intolerant and deeply conservative worldview.
The historic roots of the current problem are deep. As elsewhere in Europe, Belgium suffered waves of terrorism in the 1980s and 1990s linked to unrest in the Middle East. “There is a very long history of connection between Belgium and France in the realm of terrorism,” said Rik Coolsaet, an expert in terrorism at the University of Ghent.
In the 1990s, militancy in northern France connected to the Algerian civil war spilled over into Belgium. At least one preacher expelled from France arrived in Brussels. When locals expressed concern, officials told them the cleric was “marginal”, Johan Leman, a veteran anti-racism activist who works in Molenbeek, the Brussels neighbourhood where many of the Paris attackers came from and where Salah Abdeslam was arrested last week, said in November.
In the first half of the last decade, as European security services struggled to understand the new threat they faced, and bombs exploded in Madrid and London, Belgium was largely ignored, despite mounting evidence of extremist networks based in the country.
If only a few score Belgians made their way to Iraq, this was still a sizeable contingent in relative terms. The volunteers included a convert from Charleroi, who died in 2005 while bombing a US convoy in Iraq, becoming the first European woman to launch a suicide attack.
Others travelled to Afghanistan. In 2008, a network sending young Belgian Muslims to al-Qaida training camps was broken up. Many appeared disappointed by what they found in the combat zone but that did not seem to stem the flow. Several returned with the intention of committing attacks at home, prosecutors claimed.
In Belgian cities, ostensibly non-violent radical networks flourished. One particular group attracted the attention of authorities, eventually prompting a vast trial.
However, as in other European countries, it was the the war in Syria that catalysed deep existing problems. By some estimates, Belgium has supplied the highest per capita number of fighters to Syria of any European country. Experts say about 450 out of a total population of 11 million that includes fewer than half a million Muslims have travelled.
A “high-end estimate” by Belgian researcher Pieter van Ostaeyen is 562. Most join Islamic State, while some opt for the al-Qaida affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra. More than 80 have been killed, many in recent battles in eastern Syria.
Molenbeek, a borough of 90,000 in the capital where some neighbourhoods are up to 80% Muslim, is seen by many as a particular problem. Some commentators have claimed Molenbeek is a virtual no-go area where “police have little grip”. But interviews on the ground reveal a diverse community struggling to come to deal with a significant problem.