Naïve chocolate eaters? ‘Indecent’ Belgium bashing sparks row
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Critics of Belgium's approach to immigration and security have been accused of insensitivity and crassness in the wake of the country’s deadliest-ever terrorist attacks. But analysts say Belgian authorities need to rise to the challenge.
Tuesday’s twin bombings at Brussels Airport and a metro station killed at least 31 people and injured hundreds more, according to preliminary reports by Belgian rescue teams, which are still poring over the remains in a grisly effort to identify the casualties.
While tributes and words of commiseration poured in from across the world following the attacks, a number of stinging remarks on Belgium’s security failings jarred with the general effusion of sympathy.
Among the more bizarrely insulting statements was that of Israeli Intelligence Minister Yisrael Katz.
"If in Belgium they continue to eat chocolate, enjoy life and parade as great liberals and democrats while not taking account of the fact that some of the Muslims who are there are organising acts of terror, they will not be able to fight against them," Katz told Israeli public radio.
But it was criticism closer to home that triggered particular outrage, after French Finance Minister Michel Sapin accused Brussels of "naivety" over the spread of Islamic extremism in their country.
"I think there was [...] a lack of will, on the part of some [Belgian] authorities […] perhaps also a kind of naivety," Sapin said just hours after the attacks.
Speaking to French TV station LCI, the French minister appeared to scold Belgian authorities for believing “that to encourage good integration, communities should be left to develop on their own".
"We know […] that this is not the right answer. When a neighbourhood is in danger of becoming sectarian, we need a policy of integration," said Sapin, whose country is itself a regular target of censure for failing to integrate Muslim communities and thwart homegrown terror attacks.
Belgium has faced much criticism over its security failings, particularly in the wake of last November's Paris attacks.
The deadly shootings and bombings that shook the French capital were largely planned in the Brussels suburb of Molenbeek, a hotbed of Islamist radicalism that has been linked to a string of attacks dating back to the 2001 killing of Afghan resistance hero Ahmad Shah Massoud.
But the timing of Sapin's comments, just hours after the bombings, was considered highly inappropriate – and counter-productive at a time when France and Belgium need to establish closer co-operation in the fight against terror cells.
"It is indecent when people are suffering, are in shock. We need solidarity, not lectures," said Belgian Socialist politician Laurette Onkelinx.
A member of Sapin's own French Socialist party, François Lamy, described the finance minister's statement as "just shameful".
French Prime Minister Manuel Valls also sought to distance himself from his colleague's words, saying he did not want "to lecture our Belgian friends".
"We closed our eyes, everywhere in Europe and including France, to the rise of extremist Salafist ideas in neighbourhoods where a mix of drug trafficking and radical Islam have led astray […] some of the youth," Valls told Europe 1 radio on Wednesday.
An aide to Sapin later told AFP the minister had not wanted to single out Belgium and was talking more generally about the terrorist threat.
The aide said Sapin had sent a message to his Belgian counterpart, Johan Van Overtveldt, apologising for the "controversy".
‘Microcosm of a larger European problem’
While the timing of criticism exposes politicians to accusations of insensitivity, analysts argue that much of the finger-pointing is well deserved.
They note that Belgium has spawned more jihadists per capita than any other EU country, with some 500 believed to have travelled to Syria and Iraq from a population of only 11 million.
Experts stress the failure to crack down on Belgium’s milieu of petty crime and radical Islam that harbours potential terrorists, pointing to Abdeslam’s ability to hide in the Molenbeek area for four months after the Paris attacks, despite being Europe’s most wanted man.
“Brussels and Belgium are a microcosm of a larger problem that Europe is facing, but Belgium in particular has unique challenges,” said Rick Nelson, a counter-terrorism consultant based in Washington.
In an interview with FRANCE 24, Nelson singled out three main difficulties faced by Belgian investigators, starting with the sheer number of jihadist fighters who hail from the country and are liable to return there after fighting in Iraq and Syria.
He said Belgium had also “not done a very good job of integrating its Muslim communities – a problem for Europe across the board but Belgium in particular".
Finally, the consultant pointed to obstacles resulting from the country’s multi-layered system of government: “Information sharing and policing and law-enforcement activities, while they have improved in the last couple of years, [are] still nowhere near where they need to be to combat a threat like this.”
Belgium’s political divisions – which left the country without government for a record 589 days between 2010 and 2011 – have prevented effective coordination between security services, and have also been blamed for allowing radicalisation to fester in neighbourhoods like Molenbeek.
According to Daveed Gartenstein-Ross of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, political blockages have left Belgium’s security services severely under-resourced and thus unable to meet a rapidly evolving challenge.
“More than security services lapsing, it may be the scale of the [terrorist] problem coupled with the lack of investment by politicians” that has left the country vulnerable to attacks such as Tuesday’s, he told FRANCE 24.
Gartenstein-Ross said the Brussels attacks were evidence of the convergence between an increase in the number of jihadist fighters and a decrease in the effectiveness of electronic surveillance as more sophisticated encryption techniques allow terror cells to go undetected.
Boaz Ganor of the Israeli-based International Institute of Counter-Terrorism also pointed to intelligence failings, rather than security lapses, as the root of the problem.
He argued that failure to capitalise on Salah Abdeslam’s arrest in order to thwart other potential attacks – which he described as a “ticking bomb situation” – was evidence of an ineffective counter-terrorism strategy.
Belgium’s vulnerability “should worry European security altogether,” he warned. “Because when you talk about security there is a chain of security, and when you have one link that is weak it risks the whole rest of the chain.”