Postcard from a Failed State? Attacks Cast Light on Belgium's State Crisis

With bombs set off in the airport and the subway system, the deadly Islamic State attacks on Brussels have struck the heart of the European Union. Belgium, once the nucleus of Europe, will now have to combat its reputation as a failed state. By SPIEGEL Staff


Bart De Wever doesn't have much faith in his country. In fact, you can hardly call it a country, this artificial construct created sometime in the 19th century as the result of an accident of history, a power struggle among major powers. The centralized Belgian state is "slow, complicated and inefficient," says De Wever, one of the most powerful men in Belgian politics.

He represents a party that went into the last election campaigning for an end to this centralized state, and for an independent Flanders, which it argued would be more viable than Belgium, a broken construct.

De Wever heads the strongest party, the conservative right-wing New Flemish Alliance (N-VA). He is not part of the government, but rather the mayor of Antwerp, and yet he knows that people in Belgium pay very close attention to what he says. He's sitting under chandeliers in the Gothic city hall, in a room with dark wooden wall panels. It's a sunny Tuesday in February, four weeks before the Brussels attacks. Salah Abdeslam is still on the run, and police haven't tracked him down in Brussels' Molenbeek neighborhood yet. The government is still searching for the sole surviving Paris attacker but have been unsuccessful so far. The government is trying, but it hasn't turned up much yet. Belgium is receiving poor grades, but so is Europe.

De Wever calls German Chancellor Angela Merkel's refugee policy an "epochal mistake," and he complains that integration in Belgium already isn't working today. "This is our problem," he says. "We were unable to offer them a Flemish version of the American dream." His message is that Antwerp is still better off than Brussels, which could be called a cesspool.

De Wever likens the way politics is done in Brussels to the manner in which workers renovate the city's crumbling art nouveau buildings: some new wiring here, something patched up there. "Politicians in Belgium often work like craftsmen in old houses: they putter away without any sort of blueprint." De Wever, sitting in his office on a spring day in Antwerp, has little faith in this country. He doesn't know yet that his lack of confidence will later be confirmed in the worst of ways.

The attack on Brussels, on March 22, 2016, came from inside the country. More than 31 people died and more than 270 were injured, and the victims included people from more than 40 nations.

In the apartment where one of the perpetrators, Ibrahim El Bakraoui, had lived, at Rue Max Roos 4 in the Schaerbeek neighborhood of Brussels, police found about 200 liters of chemicals, detonators, a suitcase full of nails, an Islamic State (IS) flag and 15 kilograms of acetone peroxide, an explosive material. Najim Laachraoui, 24, who also lived there, was apparently a bombmaker of sorts for IS. Forensic investigators found his DNA on two of the explosive belts after the Paris attacks. The two men took a taxi to Brussels' Zaventem Airport, where they allowed no one to touch their luggage. Then, at 7:58 a.m., they blew themselves up. A nail bomb was detonated at Gate B, near the American Airlines ticket counter.

Khalid El Bakraoui, 27, Ibrahim's brother, blew himself up in a subway car at the Maelbeek metro station, near the European Commission building. It was 9:11 a.m.

The killers chose places of transit, sites where anyone could be targeted. An airport and a metro station are places where everyone goes. No place is safe. Forget it. That was their message.

IS Infrastructure in Europe

The attacks were delivered four days after the arrest of Salah Abdeslam. Investigators now know that it was a mistake to assume that IS, which claimed responsibility for the attack, favored the "lone wolf" approach. Since the Brussels bombings, it is clear that Islamic State has created its own infrastructure in Europe, under the radar of most intelligence services, cells consisting of first, second and third-tier militants. If the first tier is unable to act, the second tier takes over and prepares the next attack. The Brussels bombers were already involved in the Paris attacks. There were logistics experts who provided them with apartments and weapons, there were explosives experts and there were people who maintained communications with IS in Syria.

It's clear that there was a network on which Salah Abdeslam could rely. Documents from the Belgian and French authorities paint a picture of a tightknit group in which everyone protected everyone else, and that made the Belgian security forces look like fools. Salah apparently moved about freely in Molenbeek, where he even went to a barber. The mayor of Molenbeek says there is an "omertà" in the community, a code of silence reminiscent of the Mafia.

The groups are part of international networks, and the terrorists had an advantage over security services: They were perfectly in command of cooperation across European national borders. Najim Laachraoui traveled straight across Europe. The authorities had already identified him as a potential threat, and yet he was able to move about freely with forged documents. For instance, the explosives expert of the Belgian terror cell spent the night in Bavaria's Kitzingen district while traveling from Hungary to Belgium in September 2015, together with Salah Abdeslam, the Paris attacker who has since been arrested.

Concerns about German Security

It wasn't the first time Abdeslam stayed in Germany. Last year, he too traveled freely throughout Europe, including Germany. In October 2015, at least two people were picked up at an Ibis Hotel in the southern German city of Ulm, in a car rented by Abdeslam. Last year, the presumed leader of the Paris attacks, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, bragged in an IS propaganda publication about how he had traveled back and forth, unobstructed, between Europe and Syria: "All of this shows that a Muslim has nothing to fear from the intelligence services of the Crusaders."

In the wake of the Brussels attacks, the fact that the terrorists spent time in Germany raises the question of how strong that country's security provisions actually are, as well. There was a potential threat shortly after the bombings in Belgium. Using a German-language Facebook account, Erhan A. wrote that he hoped there would be more attacks. According to an internal analysis by the German Criminal Police Office (BKA), there was an attempt to launch "a French-language hashtag campaign" on Twitter, in which Germany was named as the next target of attacks. "Expect more bombs, more dead! Next time in #Germany too!" wrote the author, who has not yet been traced by law enforcement. German officials are also apparently unaware of any plans for an attack.

Nevertheless, German authorities launched an investigation, and on Thursday they uncovered information suggesting Germany may also have been targeted. In the summer of 2015, when Khalid El Bakraoui was deported from Turkey to Amsterdam on suspicion of involvement in the Syrian civil war, the authorities placed another man on a plane for the same reason: Samir E., now 28, from the Düsseldorf area. He was arrested by a special police unit on Thursday. According to security experts, he and his brother were part of the Salafist scene in the western German state of North Rhine-Westphalia.

On Wednesday evening, federal police detained a man in the vicinity of Giessen, north of Frankfurt. When they examined his mobile phone, they found two suspicious text messages from the day of the attacks. One contained the name of the Brussels Metro station bomber, and the other consisted of one word, "fin," French for "the end." The messages were apparently received three minutes before the bomb exploded in the Metro station.

False Notions of Tolerance?

Perhaps Germany has simply been lucky so far. German authorities warn of the possibility of future attacks, and they see Belgium as a warning sign.

In Belgium, the jihadists were able to recruit new members while going undetected by the authorities. Per capita, more people from Belgium have gone to fight in the Syrian civil war than from any other European country -- reportedly 500, and about 130 have apparently returned to Belgium.

"One in three of these people is dangerous," says Jaak Raes, head of the Belgian state intelligence service. The two Belgian intelligence services ought to be keeping a close eye on them and on many other suspicious individuals at all times. But the number of agents alone -- of which there are theoretically 700 -- shows why this is an impossibility. In fact, about 150 positions were not filled at the time of the Paris attacks, and the security budget was only about €50 million. This corresponds to nothing more than the editorial budget of a large newspaper, Belgian journalists recently noted with consternation.

Photo Gallery

13  Photos
Photo Gallery: Coming Together after the Attacks
One problem, says Bernard Snoeck, who used to work for the Belgian military intelligence service SGRS, is that "politicians have no idea how we work. And they don't want to know, either. In my more than 20-year career, I never saw a single member of parliament in our offices." Because of a false notion of tolerance, he says, Belgians are "unwilling to touch jihadism. It reminds me of the period after 9/11. We had information about Islamists in the army. We wanted to investigate this more closely, but the Defense Ministry stopped the investigation."

The Belgian intelligence services were not entirely unsuccessful, as evidenced by their discovery of a terror cell in January 2015, in Verviers near the German border. Three of the Paris attackers were also being tracked by law enforcement, at least intermittently. The phone of one of the men was tapped, and the Abdeslam brothers were detained at a Belgian police station when one of them unsuccessfully tried to reach Syria. In the end, however, the Belgians lacked the legal grounds and the necessary personnel for long-term surveillance.

Salah Abdeslam managed to remain in hiding. And Ibrahim El Bakraoui, Khalid El Bakraoui and Najim Laachraoui were able to pass undetected as they prepared for their act of mass murder in Brussels.

Ineffective European Cooperation

Counterterrorism is treated as a national matter, and European cooperation exists only on a voluntary basis, making it relatively ineffective. "Most police officers are still very unfamiliar with the multilateral exchange of information," says Max-Peter Ratzel. "They prefer to horde their information instead of sharing it." Ratzel, the former head of the European police agency, Europol, calls for a radical change in the mentality of authorities, "away from the need-to-know principle, in which each official decides which data he or she shares with other agencies, and toward a need-to-share principle." At a hastily convened meeting on Thursday evening, EU interior ministers pledged, once again, to improve cooperation. "Many national authorities don't want to share their information with everyone else," said German Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière, a member of the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU). "We need to change this mentality. The problem is that we have too much separate data, and that it isn't sufficiently linked together."

It isn't as if the EU hadn't reacted to the threat. Europol now has a European Counter Terrorism Center, and the individual intelligence services have joined forces to form the Counter Terrorism Group. But these efforts are also all entirely voluntary. The group is not subordinate to EU control, and there is no political control.

All criticism aside, we need to remind ourselves that nothing and no one can absolutely prevent attacks -- neither the most reliable police force nor the most effective security plan. But Tuesday's attacks also represent a poor performance on the part of the authorities, especially those in Belgium, a perception that is now beginning to take hold in the country. Two days after the attacks, the interior and justice ministers offered their resignations because warnings issued by Turkey about Ibrahim El Bakraoui, who had been arrested in Gaziantep, had reportedly been ignored. According to Belgian media reports, the prime minister has initially declined accept the resignations, but there is growing dissatisfaction with the government.

Is Belgium a Failed State?

It is also important to ask the question of whether a special Belgian problem is making a difficult situation even worse. It may seem cold to pose this question now, at a time when a country is in mourning, candles have been lit on Place de la Bourse and many people are pausing to reflect about what happened. At the same time, though, in Belgium, as well as in Europe in general, we must learn from our mistakes as quickly as possible, in order to avoid recurrences. And those who have a better grasp of Belgium's problems also have a better idea of what Europe lacks.

Belgium, a country of 30,000 square kilometers, the size of the eastern German state of Brandenburg, is famous for comics, beer, chocolate, French fries and scandals.

The scandals include the troubled nuclear reactors at Tihange and Doel, which remained connected to the grid despite the discovery of cracks. The food scare of 1999 in which PCB was detected in chicken. The Marc Dutroux case, which still casts a shadow over the country 20 years later. The fact that the child killer had been able to catch girls, abuse, imprison and eventually murder them, even though there were plenty of clues leading to him, has repeatedly tarnished confidence in Belgian law enforcement.

Photo Gallery

21  Photos
Photo Gallery: Mass Casualties in Brussels Attacks
And now, again and again: terrorism. The barely thwarted attack on a high-speed Thalys train traveling between Amsterdam and Paris in August. The Paris attacks and their Belgian perpetrators. And the horrors committed in Brussels on Tuesday.

Failed state is the term used to describe a state that is dysfunctional and unviable. Is this what Belgium is, a failed state?

"It's an artificial state." The man saying this was the mayor of Molenbeek for three-and-a-half years, a white-haired man with the Belgian Socialist Party (BSP), which speaks critically about Belgium and Europe and, in this respect, is surprisingly close to his political antipode, conservative right-winger Bart De Wever. "Unfortunately, Europe is developing into a large Belgium, instead of Belgium developing into a small Europe," N-VA party leader and Antwerp Mayor De Wever believes:

Philippe Moureaux once believed that the nation-state in Europe would fade away and that a unified Europe would remain and assume its function -- a democratic and just Europe. "Not," he says, "what we have today."

On this day, Moureaux is not the former mayor, and not the former Belgian interior minister, but instead is the history professor he once was. He's not the political pragmatist he has just written about in his book "The Truth About Molenbeek," one of the few who made an outstanding contribution to integration.

Belgians Lack Common History

Moureaux lives in Molenbeek, on the fifth floor of a building that looks like it could be low-income housing, in an apartment with a living room and a study with dark books and dark-red leather sofas. He sits there, looking back at a state that came into being as a compromise, in 1830. It was a construct that optimistically fused together regions that lacked a common history: Flanders, Francophone Wallonia and eastern Belgium, where 76,000 people speak German. It is a construct that now has a poor south that requires support, and a wealthy north where the grumbling is getting louder and louder. It's a familiar principle. It's called Europe.

Belgium has a fractured administration, confusing relationships among the various government levels and inefficient bureaucratic structures that sometimes must make allowances for grotesque regional disputes. To prevent this fragile nation from breaking apart, the constitution has been reformed several times and central power has been weakened. The result is that everything in Belgium exists in multiples: There's a Flemish prime minister, a Wallonian prime minister and a prime minister who represents all of Belgium. In Belgium, it takes months instead of weeks to form a government. About four years ago, the state simply continued to exist for 541 days without a government.

Over the years, the people of Belgium have developed a certain distance from their authorities. As Moureaux puts it, Belgians have achieved this by becoming "a little rebellious, a little anarchistic." One reason they are anarchistic, he says, is "that this region has been occupied again and again," by the Burgundians, the Spaniards, the Austrians and the French. "A tradition here is to say: An authority? That will resolve itself. It will pass."

Social Injustices

Belgium could have become a model of successful coexistence, but it didn't, and not even Moureaux wants to romanticize anything. Instead, the country became the nucleus of Europe and received "the institutions," as the headquarters of the EU's governing bodies -- the European Commission, the European Parliament and the European Council -- are called. They are now there, with their glass towers, and some perceive this is as some form of colonization.

The heart of Europe is, well, a cold heart, at least from the perspective of the Brussels poor. They see none of the money "from Brussels," as it is put elsewhere, or "from the eurocrats," as they say in Brussels.

It's about four kilometers from the European Parliament to the so-called jihadist hotspot in Molenbeek, and yet there is virtually no connection between Europe and the troubled district on an everyday basis. In the European quarter, laws are written for an entire continent, while jihadists nearby plan ways to fight this continent and destroy its freedom and values.

Moroccans from Brussels immigrant families work in the European district as drivers, doormen, cleaning personnel or in cafeterias. These are the only points of contact between the two worlds. Many cite the significance of the time of the attack in the Maelbeek metro station. It happened at shortly after 9 a.m., when the European bureaucratic elite are typically traveling to work. An hour earlier, cleaning women and night watchmen would have been on their way home from work.

Most of the immigrants living in the area aren't qualified to work in the law firms and lobbying firms that are thriving in Brussels. Nevertheless, in the last few years, the European Parliament chose to buck the trend and not farm out service jobs, such as drivers, to subcontractors, but instead brought them back into regular employment contracts.

The step was also taken in the interest of security, because full-time employees can be monitored, whereas it is never entirely clear who a subcontractor is employing at any given time. European Parliament President Martin Schulz has just announced a new, overdue initiative for young people from troubled neighborhoods. "We should think about how we can use the enormous potential of the European institutions to help correct social injustices in Brussels," says Schulz.

The European district sticks out like a UFO in Brussels. The lawmakers could just as easily be meeting in Palermo, and yet the malicious remarks, rants and contact to the city would be about the same. The city suffers from stranger anxiety.

The Brussels metropolitan area is already difficult to govern. With a population of 1.1 million, it isn't particularly large. Unfortunately, that population is divided up among 19 municipalities. Six police districts are responsible for security, the regional and central governments putter away in parallel and they communicate too little. The Belgian capital is in Flanders, and yet most people there speak French, so that hardly anyone feels truly responsible. And the police and security services are busy protecting the large number of international facilities, from NATO to the European Union buildings east of the downtown area and across its borders.

Loving an Unloved Country

Is it possible to like this city? This country?

Yes, says a man who is an unlikely supporter.

This unlikely confession of love for an unloved country comes from Philippe Blondin at the Jewish Museum. It is shortly after the Paris attacks, and he meets with us in a building that is effectively hidden on a small street near the luxurious Grand Sablon, a square with expensive antique stores, long-established restaurants and outposts of many of the city's world-famous chocolatiers.

Almost two years ago, on May 24, 2014, a young man pulled out an assault rifle in the museum, and shot and killed four people. The attacker, a French national of Algerian origin who had returned after spending time in Syria, lived in Molenbeek, just a few kilometers from the scene of the attack. It was that year, and not just last Tuesday, that Brussels got added to the European terror map -- and not just as a place where the attackers came from.

Blondin doesn't need a secretary today to register visitors. The soldiers guarding the museum entrance do that now. Visitors are asked for identification, and then whether they have an appointment. Only then are they accompanied up to Blondin's office by a soldier in camouflage fatigues. A few bullet holes are still visible on the way there.

The president of the Jewish Museum is a distinguished man with a confession to make. "I am a citizen of Belgium," he says. "I have this country to thank for everything." He goes on to explain that his family came to Belgium in search of a better life in the same way the Turks and the Moroccans did during the 1960s and 1970s. His father owned a shoe store and he himself was able to go to university. He enjoyed the kind of rise in society that is denied to many immigrants today. The old man also makes a plea for a country that has many quite perplexed these days.

Blondin wants to promote understanding between cultures and peoples. The museum, which is collecting dust in its current location, plays an important part in his vision. There are plans for one more major exhibition with young artists, a night of music and talks under the theme "100 Artists, 100 Freedoms." After that, the building will be torn down.

A new museum building will be filled with touchscreens and modern museum education techniques in tune with the times. It will also feature a section devoted to Muslims in Brussels. "Things can only be made possible through learning and joint dialogue," says Blondin, before adding with a slight hint of resignation: "My only worry is that the people who will be willing to talk to each other don't have a problem with each other anyway." He says he's familiar with all the disadvantages -- the parallel societies, the school dropouts, the lack of economic opportunities -- but argues that these in no way provide any justification for bombing attacks.

Blondin also says he doesn't want to be held responsible as a Belgian for actions taken by others in his country. "Are we supposed to apologize for something?" he asks. "No, the terrorism isn't our fault." He says he doesn't want to be defined by terrorism.

It actually is possible to find people who like living in this country, with its improvisations, its incompleteness and its self-irony.

They include people like Jan Bucquoy, a cheerful anarchist who mounts his own performance art coup d'état against the royal family once a year -- always on May 21, the calendar day in which it is statistically least likely to rain.

Then there's David Helbich, a hoodie-wearing artist who is known for works like his photo series "Belgian Solutions," which pokes fun at the odd, makeshift solutions Belgians find to everyday problems -- solutions sometimes so bizarre that it takes quite a bit of generosity to understand them as such. His work casts light on the somewhat chaotic and dilapidated nature of Belgium. The images include things like staircases on buildings leading to nowhere or a ramshackle house with a perfectly manicured hedge in front of it.

Illusory Solutions

This is the charming side of the illusory solutions, the improvisation, the jury-rigged nature of things here. The less charming side can be found 70 kilometers (44 miles) southeast of Brussels in Wallonia, the location of the three reactor blocks of the incident-prone Tihange nuclear power plant. Tihange 2 had to be shut down and tested before it could be restarted following the discovery of cracks. And the German states of North Rhine-Westphalia and Rhineland-Palatinate have also issued complaints with the EU about the operation of Tihange 1, a matter over which the EU has little authority.

Fears seem to be greater in Germany about Belgium's nuclear power plants than in the country itself. Belgians tend to get used to things, that's the habit. They tend to respond in ways similar to Françoise Georis, who opened up her Bio, dis-moi organic supermarket directly across the street from Tihange, because this type of store didn't exist within a 15 kilometer radius of the nuclear power plant. She says she's pleased to have plant workers among her customers, since "not everyone has their heart in the job that they do." In general, she says, her customers are more afraid of genetically modified food than they are of radioactivity. Speaking a week before the terrorist attacks, she said she hardly even notices the nuclear power plant -- and that's the case for most here.

But the one thing she said did concern her on that Tuesday, was terrorism.

A week later, Tihange was partly evacuated because the authorities fear that radical Islamists may have the plant in their sights. Investigators have serious concerns about the possibility of a dirty bomb attack after finding footage from a security camera during a search of a terror suspect's home. They show the director of research for the Belgian nuclear program.

Given that the nuclear power plants are now being guarded by the military, it has become a lot harder not to think about them.

It's even more difficult to get used to it. It's harder yet to somehow improvise and think that things will be normal again.

In the future, we will have to keep a much closer eye on things -- not just in Belgium, but in all of Europe -- an eye on a problem that was allowed to grow in the cities and suburbs to the point it was so large that people no longer seemed to notice it.

By Melanie Amann, Maik Baumgärtner, Sven Becker, Jörg Diehl, Martin Knobbe, Katrin Kuntz, Peter Müller, Fidelius Schmid and Barbara Supp


Discuss this issue with other readers!
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bicester55 03/26/2016
1. This corresponds to ... editorial budget of a large newspaper
A poor choice of comparison sounds like you are saying the money would be better spent in this way? Surely newspapers are needed more than ever to humiliate Belgium into addressing its shortcomings.
Inglenda2 03/26/2016
2. Europe has failed, not Belgium!
The citizens of Europe are suffering, because their political representative are totally incapable. It is time to decide whether we want an association of individual nations working in co-operation, (as Britain would like), or a European state, with one government and one legal system. At the moment, European taxpayers are paying for both, but have neither. The complete mix-up of ideas, policies and rules & regulations, is a costly chaos which provides no safety in any of the open-bordered countries. Tomorrow it could be Berlin or Bielefeld which could be attacked. Sending troops overseas, while at the same time not being in a position to stop radical subversive activities at home, may well lead to disaster. More police are needed, not more soldiers.
chardcastle999 03/26/2016
3. Smoke And Mirrors
Two Belgian ministers offered their resignations for being incompetent and were refused. Lesson learned for Belgians 'nothing is going to change' but government likes to pretend there will be change. Salah Abdeslam remained at large for three months only a block away from his parents. Belgian police RESIGN.
praha7 03/26/2016
In the sense that there has been a reluctance to confront the problem of Islamist terrorism throughout the EU we are all failed states. Until the nettle is grasped and the fear of upsetting some people's sensibilities is overcome I cannot see how this fight against terrorism is to be won. For a start all those EU citizens returning from Syria will have to be closely monitored and have restrictions on their personal freedom. As they have already shown their rejection of all that the EU stands for I cannot see any reason why we should worry overmuch about their rights.
turnipseed 03/26/2016
5. Belgium is real
It is not an unhistorical country as many claim. The Netherlands were ruled by the Counts of Brabant and the Habsburgs. The Reformation led to a revolt of the Protestants against Spanish Habsburg rule. The line between the Dutch Republic and Belgium (ruled by Spanish and then German Habsburgs) was the armistice line, with Protestants moving North and Catholics staying South. The Dutch conquered north Brabant which remained Catholic. After Napoleon took all of the Netherlands over it was given to the Royal House of Orange, a Calvinist royal house which then ruled Catholics in the South and in the south of the old Dutch Republic. The Catholics and the Socialists in the South revolted against the Dutch and became Belgium. This country had unity: Catholic unity, but the liberals and socialists were anti-clerical while the Flemings particularly were strong Catholics. The division then is over language and over religion. Belgium is not the only country with these problems. Some survive like Switzerland, some like Yugoslavia do not. But if the Belgians took this opportunity to defend their native land, Belgium, and not their linguistic separatism Belgium could mean something again. It was Germany's invasion in 1914 which set off British involvement in the First World War. Belgium has always been important and can be again.
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