Update from the European Frontlines: The Battle for Belgium

The dramatic footage of counterterrorism raids in Belgium emerging on our news screens over the last few days is a sharp contrast to the perceived inaction that characterized the nation’s counterterrorism policy before the Paris attacks. Multiple raids around the country in the last week have resulted in the detention of more than 25 suspected militants, the seizure of guns and propaganda including an ISIL flag, and the foiling of a potential terror plot. Multiple media sources are now reporting that Salah Abdeslam, the main fugitive from the Paris attacks, was arrested in Brussels during one of the most recent raids.

Almost immediately after the last shots were fired in the Paris terrorist attacks on Nov. 13, 2015, it became clear jihadists from Belgium played a critical role in the carnage. The New York Times reported days after the attacks that two of the attackers had been tracked by the Belgian security apparatus as potential threats and lived less than a hundred yards from the Molenbeek City Hall, the seat of a township long known to harbor Islamic cells. The Times reported political divisions between the various regions in Belgium and between the local and federal authorities were being blamed for the failures to stop the jihadists before they left for France. It appears that while the Molenbeek radicalization unit was mostly locally funded and had only a small number of employees, their lethality is not in any doubt. French frustration with an apparently inept or dis-unified anti-terrorism approach resulted in some claims that instead of bombing the Islamic State in Raqqa, Syria, “France should bomb Molenbeek.”

Since the attacks, Belgium has taken steps to combat this “rear base of Islamic barbarity” as one Flemish nationalist described Brussels. In February, the government announced it would double spending on police and intelligence. Interior Minister Jan Jambon said the goal of the increased spending was to “pick out jihadi fighters and possible terrorists in Molenbeek and the canal zone … we want to know who is staying in Molenbeek.”

Despite the reported success of the most recent raids, the long-term strategy of combatting homegrown terrorists in Belgium is unclear. Police and intelligence expenditures alone cannot defeat the Islamic threat. The US coalition in Afghanistan and the tribal regions of Pakistan has proven that kill/capture missions applied against high profile jihadists will not eliminate terrorism. More generally we have not come to grips with the forces driving the emergence of and support for terrorism across the globe.

As a preliminary matter, in common with all states facing the threat of disaffection and radicalization by young men and women, Belgium would benefit from a focus on Muslim youth, giving them a homegrown alternative to jihad in Syria and elsewhere. This is of course, easier said than done but imperative to addressing disaffection, radicalism, and extremism. Today’s arrests affirm the delivery of a much needed counterterrorism victory for the Belgian police and military but, they get nowhere near advancing a deeper solution to the challenges of radicalism. This is the sea in which Salah Abdeslam has swum since the Paris attacks. 

About the Author(s)

Fionnuala Ní Aoláin

U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms While Countering Terrorism; This article is written in the author's personal and academic capacity; Robina Chair in Law, Public Policy, and Society at the University of Minnesota Law School; Professor of Law at the University of Ulster’s Transitional Justice Institute in Belfast, Northern Ireland; Follow her on Twitter (@NiAolainF).