(Daily O, Delhi, 25 March 2016: "Why ISIS targeted Brussels")
22 March is henceforth an iconic date in Belgian history. Bomb attacks in the departure hall of Brussels Airport and at the Maalbeek underground station near the European Parliament building killed dozens of people. I have been hundreds of times at these locations, and must count myself fortunate that I was’t there at the wrong time.
Is there a reason why Brussels was singled out for bomb attacks claimed by the Islamic State? Yes, there was, and we in Belgium felt it was only a matter of time before such a thing would happen – though the actual event still came as a shock. In fact several reasons.
Militants of the Islamic State, the self-styled Caliphate, are acutely aware of Islamic history, and that contains one reason, dim to us but very vivid to them. IS statements about the attacks identify the victims as “crusaders”, and Belgium is indeed strongly identified with the crusades. The First Crusade was led by the proto-Belgian earl Godfrey of Bouillon, who became the first King of Jerusalem in 1099; his equestrian statue adorns the highest place of Brussels, next to the Royal Palace. The Crusader elite corps of the Knights Templar had a tactical alliance with the Assassins, a Shiite militia dedicated to fighting the (Sunni) Caliphate. Today, the neo-Caliphate (IS) is continuing that thousand-year-old struggle against both Shiites and Crusaders.
The second reason is the symbolic value of Brussels as containing the headquarters of both the EU and NATO, incarnations of armed infidelism. The Caliphate is at war with these entities, and Belgium is among the Western nations bombing the Iraqi part of the Caliphate. Many Leftists have transferred their old sympathy for Cuba and Vietnam to the Islamic challengers of Western imperialism. Therefore they tend to minimize the seriousness of terrorism by alleging, not incorrectly, that even a small country like Belgium has already killed more Arab civilians (apart from Caliphate fighters) than have died in any of the terrorist attacks on Madrid, London, Paris or now Brussels. Being killed on the way to work by a sudden bomb explosion is exactly as bad in Mosul as it is in Brussels, so “Belgians shouldn’t complain”.
The third reason is the relative laxity of the Belgian authorities. Within Belgium itself, when compared to the second city, Antwerp, the administration of Brussels counts as undisciplined, chaotic and corrupt. The over-all Belgian standard is not so good either, as the security forces are badly underfunded. For decades, whenever budget cuts have been considered, the army has served as a milch-cow. Soldiers are not expected to complain, but the result is that today they are ill-equipped to deal with the terror threat.
Within the calculations of the IS strategists, the fourth reason, at least explaining why it happened now, is that it had to happen fast. Last week, Salah Abdeslam, the only survivor of the cell that carried out the Paris attacks in November, was arrested in Brussels. The Belgian Government was triumphant and expected to extract important information from the terrorist. For the very same reason, IS feared that its plans for further actions would become known, so it preponed the bomb attacks that have now taken place. That explains why they targeted easily accessible places: IS showed that it could fast adapt to the constraints of the new situation and still achieve a very tangible and sensational result.
But the most controversial and politically charged, is the fifth reason. Using Brussels as a staging-ground for preparing attacks in Madrid, Paris or Brussels itself is fairly easy, because the militants can always count on a large population of sympathizers. As Ernesto Ché Guevara wrote, a guerrilla fighter is among the masses like a fish in the water. In the Muslim neighbourhoods of Brussels, there is a strong anti-System feeling, and even moderates will never betray a member of their own community. Take the case of Salah Abdeslam, whom it took four months to catch. He had not been roaming as a fugitive, but lived in hiding with an extremist family in the Brussels suburb of Molenbeek. His brother, who lived nearby, had told the police he hadn’t heard of Salah and feared he was dead. Yet, he and many in the neighbourhood knew Salah’s whereabouts, but nobody spilled the beans.
The Belgian population frowned when it learned of this display of disloyalty. This form part of a long-running and far-reaching debate on immigration, ethnic relations, religious pluralism and the secular state. At any rate, in a realistic assessment, Brussels had it coming. Belgium’s Home Minister, Jan Jambon, had warned last week that the latest catch of a terrorist did not mean that the terror threat had died down. He was proven right sooner than he expected.