The combination of balkanised authorities and a marginalised North African population has made Brussels a natural terrorism hub.
I’m here in Brussels this week, doing a few TV spots and moderating some conferences. As soon as I arrived at the airport last night, I could sense the tension in the city as a result of this weekend's terrorist attack in Paris.
As I rode the nearly empty tram to my Brussels apartment, a group of young North African men got on the tram, engaged in a heated argument amongst themselves about the recent attacks (they were debating whether or not it was justified). I stopped into my local kebab joint and found another discussion between the Moroccan owners and a white Belgian customer, about how the authorities should respond. Outside, sirens wailed as police searched the city for one of the attackers believed to be on the loose in the city.
It’s been a marked change from Berlin, where this weekend I didn’t sense much of a preoccupation with the events in Paris.
People here in Brussels are particularly talking about the international media’s description of their city as “the heart of European terror”. It now appears that three of the attackers resided in the Molenbeek neighbourhood of central Brussels (with the rest living in our just outside Paris).
Authorities have arrested seven people in Molenbeek in connection with the Paris attacks. This is the same neighborhood where the Charlie Hebdo attackers came from, where the shooter at the Jewish museum came from, and was also home for the gunman who attempted the terror attack on a Thalys train from Paris to Brussels.
People here are talking about the revelations not because they are surprised, but because the rest of the world seems to be noticing something that is plainly evident to anyone who has lived in Brussels. This city has created the perfect storm for a terror breeding ground.
I remember when the Charlie Hebdo attacks took place in January, and the perpetrators were traced to Belgium, a lot of the American news reports were full of clichés. NBC’s Richard Engel, reporting from Liege, noted that Belgium was more known as a quaint and quiet land of chocolate and beer than for Islamic radicalism.
Indeed, this is the view I get very often from people who have never visited Brussels. They assume it’s some charming gingerbread town like Zurich or Bonn. When I tell them that it is actually a quite dirty city with a lot of petty crime and poverty, they’re shocked.
Brussels is considered to have the third-highest petty crime rate of any European capital (behind Rome and Paris). Berlin is ranked 24th.
Because Brussels (and Belgium as a whole) is balkanised into competing jurisdictions and authorities, you get competing interests. Brussels itself is split into 19 communes, with different police forces that barely co-operate with one another.
Belgium as a whole is now essentially a country in name only. In reality it is a federation of three semi-autonomous regions: Dutch-speaking Flanders, French-speaking Wallonia and bilingual (theoretically) Brussels. Because of the linguistic conflict, these authorities also don’t co-operate with each other very well.
Brussels itself is sort of the unloved problem child caught between the two other regions. Everyone wants custody over it but nobody wants to take responsibility for it.
The chronic lack of governance is problem number one. Problem number two has been the failure to integrate the mass of immigrants over the past four decades, mostly from North Africa. Belgium had a guest worker programme with Morocco starting in the 1970s. Much like Germany's guest worker programme with Turkey, the assumption was that the guests would come, work for awhile, and go back home. That didn't happen. The immigrants stayed largely moving into neighborhoods of central Brussels that were being vacated by white Belgians (particularly Dutch speakers moving out to the suburbs in Flanders) in the 70s and 80s. Molenbeek is one such neighbourhood.
Officially Muslims make up one-quarter of the Brussels population, though estimates including non-registered inhabitants put the figure at closer to 30%.
The international media has been calling Molenbeek a "suburb" of Brussels, perhaps because they're taking their understanding of immigrant settlement in Paris and applying it to Brussels. But Brussels has a very different habitation pattern. Minority communities tend to live in the city center and areas immediately West of it, while the wealthier residents live uphill to the East in areas further out (in Brussels, wealth has an elevation). Molenbeek is just a short 15 minute walk from Grand Place, the city's tourist highlight regarded as being the absolute center.
The description of the area as a "no-go zone" can be overstated. It's not true that the police won't enter it, as I've heard claimed in American media. I've "gone" there and came out alive, I sometimes ride my bike through to get my friend's apartment further out.
But it is absolutely true that this is a city within a city. In certain parts, every woman is wearing a headscarf and shop signs are in Arabic. When you cross the canal between Brussels city center and Molenbeek, it's like you've been transported to another continent.
I would venture to guess that most of the people working in and around the European Union have never been to Molenbeek. Perhaps at most they've just driven through (rolling up the windows and locking the doors). The EU Quarter is on the other side of town uphill in the East, and it's easy for a lot of these people to live a life blissfully ignorant of the abject poverty that exists downhill to the West.
Despite Brussels being the third-richest region in the European Union, Molenbeek has a 30% unemployment rate - 40% among youth. Muslim residents in Belgium complain that they will not be invited for a job interview simply because they have an Arab name. It leaves many young Muslim youth in this city with little to do but engage in petty crime, which in turn can lead to radicalisation.
Personally I can say that Brussels is the most intensely segregated city I've ever lived in - and not just between whites and North Africans. The city is essentially divided into four groups that have little interaction with one another: the Francophone Belgians, the Flemish, the expats, and the North Africans. Together, the expats and North Africans outnumber the Belgians. 63% of people living in Brussels were born outside Belgium.
The attractiveness of Brussels as a terrorist breeding ground has been fairly evident for some time. It's a combination of poor administration and lack of integration. The question is, now that the attention of the world is on this strange little city, will anything change?
The Belgian interior minister admitted on Saturday that the government had "lost control" of Molenbeek and other areas like it. He vowed to "clean up Molenbeek". What that means exactly is still unclear.