If you can’t defeat terrorism in your own backyard, it’s hard to image how you can do so in a land of chaos thousands of miles away.
The test of American and European resolve against Islamist extremists like ISIS, which has claimed responsibility for Friday’s terrorist attacks in Paris, begins not in Syria but in Belgium. That nation — and, in particular, a poor, largely Arab immigrant neighborhood in Brussels called Molenbeek — has been a breeding ground or gathering place for the perpetrators of terrorist attacks, including the attacks in Paris, for some 30 years.
A crackdown there, internationally supported and coordinated, is long overdue. That could include, to begin with, a greater sharing of intelligence information among European Union countries and NATO, as called for Monday by Belgium’s foreign minister.
Sometimes called the “jihadist pipeline,” Brussels lies a mere 182 miles from the French border, which is shorter than the distance from Springfield to Chicago. It is a country of just 11 million people, but it has been Europe’s biggest per capita source of fighters to Syria — 350.
Whenever there is an attack on European soil, or even against an American target, look for the possible Belgium connection.
“Almost every time, there is a link to Molenbeek,” Belgium Prime Minister Charles Michel acknowledged to a Reuters reporter on Sunday. It is “a gigantic problem.”
In the 2004 train bombing in Madrid, one of the planners was a Moroccan living in Molenbeek. In 2005, before ISIS existed, a Belgian suicide bomber for Al Qaeda detonated her explosive vest amid an American military patrol in Iraq. In May 2014, a Frenchman opened fire at the Jewish Museum in Brussels, killing four. He is believed to have bought his weapons in Molenbeek.
In January of this year, a man who declared his allegiance to ISIS killed four people in a kosher supermarket in Paris. He, too, is believed to have bought his weapons in Molenbeek. Also in January, Belgian police killed two suspected terrorists, recently returned from fighting in Syria, who were active in a terrorist network based in Molenbeek.
In August, three American men managed to thwart a terrorist attack on a train traveling between Brussels and Paris. The terrorist, originally from Morocco, had lived in Belgium.
And now three French brothers who lived in Belgium have been implicated in the Paris attacks that claimed 129 lives. One, a suicide bomber, died in the attacks. A second was arrested in Molenbeek. The third, Salah Abdeslam, is reportedly on the run. At least six other people living in Belgium have been arrested as well.
The Paris attacks, French President Francois Hollande said Monday, were “planned in Syria, prepared and organized in Belgium and perpetrated on our soil with French complicity.”
Belgium, with three official languages, is particularly vulnerable to Islamist extremism because it has a highly decentralized government structure, making anti-terrorism coordination difficult. There are six police forces in Brussels alone. It has a thriving black market in automatic weapons and — by European standards — a relaxed approach to gun ownership. And fundamentalist religious leaders flourish in poor, overcrowded and despairing neighborhoods like Molenbeek.
On Sunday, Belgium’s interior minister, Jan Jambon, said his government did not “have control” in Molenbeek.
By bullet train, Molenbeek remains just 90 minutes from France.
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