In the wake of the terrorist attack on Brussels, many people have expressed surprised that terrorists are still operational in Belgium. Brussels has been a hotbed of jihadists for years. The Paris terrorist attacks were launched by ISIS members living in Brussels, so the country should have been on high alert for potential destruction. Many have singled out the increasingly large number of disaffected Muslims living in housing developments in the country as the reason behind terroristic activity in Brussels. But this is only one factor, and it is not the most significant reason that terrorists have been able to operate unimpeded. Radicalized Muslims are present in other European states in much greater numbers. Unfortunately, what sets Belgium apart is its divided government.
Through Unity, Strength?
In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks, Belgians took to the streets with banners proclaiming their solidarity, citing Belgium’s official motto, “Through Unity, Strength.” The sentiments by the Belgian citizens are a welcome change, since underneath the motto, Belgium is simmering with political, cultural and language divisions that have threatened to tear the country apart.
Belgium is a peaceful nation but it is far from united. Belgians are divided in language and heritage, with one side, the Flemish, aligning with the Dutch, while other, the Waloons, decidedly French. The animosity between the two sides has repeatedly caused the country to be on the verge of a legal separation. In 2010, Belgium had no government for more than 18 months, while both sides fought and debated whether they even wanted to be a unified country at all.
Belgium is a federal constitutional monarchy with three regions: Wallonia (majority French), Flanders (Flemish) and Brussels-Capital (inside Flanders but French-speaking).
The divisions in the country are mirrored in the intelligence apparatus. There are two bodies responsible for security, the civilian State Security Service and the military General Intelligence and Security Service. The agencies have struggled to share and trust information from each other. Much like the American FBI, the State Security Service is unable to collect its own foreign intelligence. The exception to this rule is when the State Security Service receives information from partner organizations. One would have hoped that the French intelligence service would have been a key partner for the State Security Service, but this link has been slow to form, leaving the country vulnerable to ISIS.
The EU to the Rescue?
Many have assumed that the unity ideals behind the European Union would have inspired greater collaboration across security and intelligence services in Europe. But the reality is that despite EU cooperation in currency, borders and laws, there remains no centralized EU body with governmental powers. That’s largely because the nations that make up the EU tend to resist any actions that will undermine their sovereignty.
Unfortunately, the failure of member states to have cohesive, open and collaborative security services means that people with nefarious purposes find it easier to attack western Europe. The EU has set up an facility designed to share intelligence, but much like the United Nations, such facilities are only as effective as their member states make them.
Belgians must bring the same unity and enthusiasm they attach to their most popular sports – soccer, tennis and cycling – to their government. They have historical mettle to fall back on. The spirit of cooperation that the Belgians developed after being the battlefield for other nations’ wars in both World War I and World War II enabled them to rebuild their country twice. It will take the same cooperation and toughness to root out ISIS from Brussels and beyond.