For months, security officials and the media have characterized Belgium as the center of extremism in Europe, describing it as a hotbed of radicalism on the continent. This characterization of the country as a front line against terrorism has only intensified after Tuesday's deadly attacks in Brussels, which left over 30 people dead.
The focus on Belgium, as the Brussels attacks prove, is not unwarranted. Anti-terror raids have been commonplace in the nation over the past year, and the Brussels neighborhood of Molenbeek has been under a microscope after it was revealed that several of the men who attacked Paris last November came from the community. Salah Abdeslam, a suspect in the Paris attacks, was arrested in Molenbeek just four days before Tuesday's events in Brussels.
While Belgium does face unique issues with extremism, the country's problem is far more complex than a single city or neighborhood. Instead, experts argue that Belgium is just one part of a complex and international landscape of extremism within Europe that goes back decades. Rather than solely focusing on the domestic aspects that contributed to the Brussels attacks, they contend it is important to understand the transnational aspects as well.
The WorldPost spoke with Petter Nesser, a senior research fellow with the Norwegian Defense Research Establishment (FFI) and author of Islamist Terrorism in Europe, to put the Brussels attacks in context.
Since the Paris attacks, a lot of attention has been focused on the neighborhood of Molenbeek and its reputation as a hotbed for jihadism. But what does focusing the analysis on just one neighborhood miss about the prevalence of extremism in Belgium?
I believe that the focus on Molenbeek is a bit misleading, as is to characterize Belgium as the centerpiece of European jihad. It’s no doubt that Belgium has been a hub, but it hasn’t been the hub.
The phenomenon [of European extremism] is generally transnational. There have been constantly evolving transnational networks since at least the 1990s, when they were established by veterans from the Afghan jihad. This was primarily in London, but then it spread to other countries and areas of the region.
It’s no doubt that Belgium has been a hub, but it hasn’t been THE hub.
Having said that, there have been multiple incidents tied to Molenbeek, and the suburb obviously has a problem with extremism. That creates a hospitable environment for jihadi networks looking for manpower to use in terrorism campaigns.
Some have argued these networks are criminal enterprises, in addition to what we might think of as jihadi terror networks -- that there is a criminal network factor as well. From your research, is that accurate?
It’s often hard to distinguish between the criminal aspect and the political or militant aspect of it all. Belgium, in the history of Jihadi terrorism in Europe, has played the role of being a hub for support networks.
Whereas London was a hub for ideology, propaganda and recruitment, Belgium was a place where militants were generating funds, acquiring weapons and smuggling weapons to conflict zones. The first networks that were formed [in Belgium] were linked to the Algerian GIA. That group has a long tradition of funding its struggle through criminal means and criminal networks.
It’s no doubt that many criminals populate these networks, and the profile is that there are more criminals and ex-criminals involved in networks in France and Belgium than in other countries.
In addition to these criminal networks and a high rate of foreign fighters, what factors make Belgium unique when it comes to problems with violent extremism?
Other experts have pointed to several factors that have contributed to making Belgium a hub, and a place that jihadists can exploit for their purposes. One element is basically the setup of the nation’s security system -- the police authority and intelligence services, and problems and challenges of coordinating between the different cantons.
Another element is the existence of a black market for weapons -- access to weapons which jihadists have needed not only for terror operations in Europe, but also for transporting to conflict zones such as Algeria in the 1990s, Iraq in the 2000s and Syria and Iraq today. That’s also a factor.
The third thing is the existence of segregated suburbs, where there are problems with failed integration, socioeconomic problems and crime that can be exploited for the jihadists.
Looking and analyzing the networks over time and focusing on plots and attack cells, it’s also the actor landscape itself that’s a very important reason why Belgium has links to so many incidents. Specifically, the presence of some experienced and well-connected militants who have a history with jihadism.
What is the significance of the Brussels attacks in the larger picture of Islamist terrorism in Europe?
I think the attacks illustrate an escalation that has been going on for some time. There has been a steady increase in plots in Europe since 2011, and with the outbreak of the war in Syria and rise of IS [the Islamic State] that has intensified. Throughout 2014 and 2015 -- now into 2016 -- the majority of plots have some kind of connection to IS.
When the conflict in Syria broke out, there was a revitalization of the networks and a mobilization among a new generation of jihadists that were sent to Syria as foreign fighters, by transnational groups such as the Sharia4 movement. This is a watershed change, because they represent an enormous capacity for the militants to conduct external operations.
What can European countries do to better contain these types of threats in Europe?
That’s the most difficult question of them all. I think more has to be done of what’s already been done in terms of prevention, in terms of trying to prevent radicalization and recruitment among disenfranchised youth that are vulnerable to being recruited. This effort must continue.
At the same time, the situation now represents such a new capacity challenge for security services. The security services in all of Europe need more resources, they need to coordinate better and they need to be giving a lot more to disrupting the links between the local extremist communities in various European countries and the groups in the conflict zones.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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