Magazine April 25, 2016, Issue

Nourishing the Viper

(Roman Genn)
Belgium’s tolerance of terrorists is Europe’s loss and Russia’s gain

Paris — When trying to make sense of recent events in Europe, memory is useful. During the Cold War, Europe was terrorized by now-forgotten murderous far-left and far-right terrorist groups. Germany, Italy, France, Spain, and Turkey, in particular, were turned into abattoirs. These terrorists, too, were in thrall to a utopian and radical vision. They had a particular effect on Europe, one we should consider as we enter the new Cold War. The Soviets hoped to use these groups to spread chaos in Europe and break up NATO: The intended effect of the terror was to radicalize and destabilize the terrorized population. Russia is poised to profit similarly from today’s terrorism.

Some of the groups  remain active. Turkey’s Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party/Front, or DHKP/C, bombed the U.S. embassy in Ankara in 2013. It has a long, bloody history of more than 400 attacks against Turkish and NATO targets.

The DHKP/C, like ISIS today, became a Belgian problem, and one that the Belgian authorities dealt with poorly. In 1996, the DHKP/C assassinated Özdemir Sabanci, a well-known Turkish captain of industry, and two of his associates, in Istanbul. Fehriye Erdal, a female DHKP/C terrorist who had infiltrated Sabanci’s building as a cleaner, enabled the murderers to enter his office.

The headquarters of this DHKP/C group were in Belgium, where its members operated freely. It took several years for the Belgian authorities to bring them to trial. In 2006, Fehriye Erdal was convicted. In principle, she was under the 24-hour surveillance of the Sûreté de l’Etat (the Belgian state-security service). But hours before her sentencing, she disappeared, and she was never recaptured.

This was typical. Belgium has long ignored extremist groups in return for their implicit agreement not to target Belgium. It is often no secret at all. In 1996, Brussels released twelve members of Algeria’s Islamist organization Groupe Islamique Armé. In Europe, the GIA chiefly targeted France; in 1995, it bombed the Saint-Michel metro station in Paris, killing seven and wounding 117. The Belgian government reputedly made a deal with the GIA to ignore its activities on Belgian soil in exchange for immunity from attack. Understandably enraged, the French minister of the interior, Charles Pasqua, accused Belgium of lacking resolve.

In 2002, a Belgian parliamentary commission’s investigation into the Sûreté revealed that it had allowed the Belgian Muslim community — numbering over 350,000 — to be heavily infiltrated by Islamic extremists. Thirty of Belgium’s 300 mosques, the report said, were run by fundamentalists. Belgian schools, prisons, hospitals, and sports centers had become jihadi recruiting grounds. The report warned that they were creating a theocracy within the state. The head of the Sûreté resigned upon the publication of the report, which concluded that the Sûreté had adopted a passive attitude toward Muslim extremists because it had found no indication that they would attack Belgian targets. It also indicated that the Sûreté had been understaffed and inadequately funded for over a decade and that many retiring officers had gone unreplaced.

Yet Belgian security is capable of doing its job when it wishes: The Belgian contingent in Afghanistan competently protected Kabul’s airport in a war zone. So why could it not protect its own domestic airport in peacetime? The answer is that it could have, but chose not to. Belgium’s policy of neglect toward radical and terrorist groups is openly understood and openly admitted. Shortly after the recent attack on the Brussels airport and metro, the French-language daily La Dernière Heure, published in Brussels, explained the policy thus:

Belgium miraculously escaped attack in the 1990s and after September 11. For many years, the country was considered a rear base of Islamist terrorism, and it must be allowed that this perfectly suited politicians and policemen who considered this position the country’s hedge against an attack.

This deliberate inefficacy in confronting, or direct complicity with, a wide range of terrorist networks has long infuriated the countries where these terrorists operate. Recently, two suicide bombings in Ankara killed 66 people. Both were claimed by the Kurdish Freedom Falcons, an offshoot of the Kurdish-separatist PKK. Shortly after the recent attack in Brussels, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan denounced Belgium rather than offering condolences. Belgium, he said, permitted the PKK to pitch tents near the EU Council building in Brussels. “You are nursing a viper in your bosom. That viper you have been nourishing can bite you at any time,” said Erdogan, who knows about nourishing vipers. Turkish authorities had deported one of the Brussels bombers, warning the Belgian embassy in Ankara that he was a foreign fighter freshly back from Syria. But Belgian authorities lost track of him.

The Wikileaks cables are replete with discussion of Belgium’s permissive attitude toward terrorists. As long ago as 1978, the U.S. embassy was asked by the State Department to check whether there was, as reported, a large open-air arms flea market in Liège, at which, every Sunday, terrorists shopped for weaponry. (The answer is not clear, but there probably was.) By 2010, the U.S. embassy in Belgium deemed the country “a breeding ground for extremists.” Belgian keenness to release, for stupid reasons, terrorists who threatened American interests is a recurrent theme. In December 2007, they released 14 suspects the day after detaining them for plotting to break al-Qaeda intimate Nizar Trabelsi out of prison. “Unfortunately, their release does not come as a surprise to us,” said one Lieve Pellens, spokeswoman for the Belgian federal prosecutor’s office. “We think there is still a threat,” she added.

In 2005, a Belgian convert to Islam became the first European to commit a suicide attack in Iraq. In 2008, the U.S. embassy reported, a Belgian court reduced the sentence of the leader of the network that had sent her; it also released her younger brother and sentenced another suspected member of the network to 100 hours of community service. Belgium’s counterterrorism laws, the cable concluded, “will have little impact if in fact the corresponding sentences for those convicted under the law are minimal.”

A small country with a population of 11.2 million, Belgium has had grossly disproportionate links to terrorist networks. These networks were tied to the assassination of Ahmad Shah Massoud in Afghanistan two days before 9/11, to the Madrid train bombings (2004), to the murder at the Jewish Museum of Belgium (2014), and to last year’s attacks on the Hypercacher kosher market in Paris, on the Thalys train, and on much of Paris again in November. Belgium’s permissive environment is not uniquely lax on Islamists: It has also been a platform for Action Directe, the Red Army, the ETA, the IRA, and, of course, the PKK and the DHKP/C.

Belgian officials had questioned some of the men involved in November’s Paris attacks. They never shared the information they obtained with French authorities. Salah Abdeslam, the logistical planner of the November attacks, hid in plain sight for months in the Brussels neighborhood of Schaerbeek, which along with the Molenbeek district ranks at the top in the number of European ISIS recruits per capita. He was found only by accident, when gunfire surprised police officers carrying out a routine search in the area.

The American press is reporting that Europe is busily infantilizing itself with syrupy Tintin cartoons and a “#PrayersForBelgium” Twitter hashtag. Not so: Europe is busily tearing itself apart. French parliamentarian Alain Marsaud directly blamed the Belgian security services for the Paris attack as well as the one in Brussels. He was, he said, “disgusted by the inability of the Belgians in the past month, in the past few years, to address this problem.” Belgian “naïveté” — by which he clearly meant indolence, corruption, and incompetence — “cost us, the French, 130 dead.”

French contempt for Belgium has never been well concealed; now it is overt. France’s finance minister, Michel Sapin, accused Belgian politicians of a “lack of will.” German interior minister Thomas de Maizière intoned that Brussels was at fault for failing to work effectively with other foreign services: “The best way to stop such attacks is exchanging information. There are different mentalities. People don’t want to share all of their information.” European commissioner Günther Oettinger likewise criticized Belgian security services: “This cannot continue,” he said. “In Brussels alone there are several different police agencies, which do not cooperate sufficiently.” Strong words. Not the words of a united Europe, though. And not apt to change anything, because who will enforce them?

Police agencies in European countries are notorious for not cooperating effectively. This creates special challenges for counterterrorism efforts, because terrorism is a transnational problem; and Europe’s Schengen system makes it possible for terrorists and their funders — drug and human traffickers — to cross borders with ease.

It’s a paradox of intelligence collection that a human source is safe only if his identity stays a secret, but useful only if the intelligence gathered from him is shared, endangering his secrecy. No one wants to share intelligence with Belgium. People remember what happened with Fehriye Erdal. Everyone knows that Belgian authorities allowed Molenbeek to become a safe haven, more dangerous to Europe than jihadist sanctuaries in Syria, Iraq, and Libya. So who would trust Belgium to protect intelligence sources?

But the Brussels attacks showed — again — that the only solution, paradoxically, is the one these attacks make less likely, if not impossible: deeper European integration. This is the counterintuitive point that Europeans seem unwilling to grasp or to articulate. A tiny and fractured country such as Belgium can’t mount the kind of counterterrorism program Europe needs. And only collective defense is sufficient to defend Europe against the much larger threat this terrorism invites — Russia. Historically, only one power has ever succeeded in uniting Europe peacefully long enough to confront these kinds of grave external threats. That power is America. It is disappearing.

Belgium hosts much of the EU’s nomenklatura and therefore has a disproportionately large share of high-value terrorist targets. Its security services must protect these targets as well as the NATO command, and, because Brussels is the bureaucratic heart of the EU, they must do so while conveying the impression of business as normal even when it is most certainly not.

Belgium also has one of Europe’s larger Muslim populations. Some 500 Belgian fighters have joined ISIS. Many of its neighborhoods are notable for high unemployment, the isolation of Muslim citizens, their poor education, a lack of government services, and a surfeit of Saudi-funded imams.

The country is also politically dysfunctional. “Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres, unam partem incolunt Belgae,” wrote Julius Caesar: All of Gaul is divided into three parts; the Belgians inhabit one part. For most of its history, Belgium has been part of a larger territory, or divided. It was part of the Carolingian Empire, then divided into smaller states, among them the duchy of Brabant and the county of Flanders. It remains riven linguistically and bifurcated culturally between Latin French and Germanic Dutch. It has been a center of interminable warfare. Its open plains are accessible terrain; it is at a strategic sea crossroads, geographically indefensible, and welcoming to foreign armies. Belgium’s weakness, its strategic location, and the many armies fighting on its soil have long given rise to nicknames such as “the battlefield of Europe” and “the cockpit of Europe.” Like the Middle Eastern states established after the First World War, it is a fragile and artificial creation. Such states tend to be corrupt, because no one identifies with them. Talleyrand, the 19th-century French diplomat, tried to persuade other major powers of the merits of carving Belgium up. Its strategic location as a pathway to France ensured that Germany would invade it; German violation of Belgian neutrality persuaded Britain to declare war in 1914, or so the British said. (Deep down, they did not much care.)

Each of the three regions within Belgium — Flanders, Wallonia, and Brussels — is responsible for its own internal economic policies, which causes confusion. The entrenched bureaucracy cannot coordinate an effective counterterrorism policy, because it cannot coordinate anything: In 2010, Belgium set a 589-day record for having a democracy without an elected government. The two main parties fought about everything, from Flemish collaboration during the Second World War to Francophone cultural imperialism. The weak federal government and distrust among law-enforcement authorities impede even basic counterterrorism activities: communication, investigation, apprehending suspects.

Some now describe Belgium as a failed state, but that’s not apt: It is a neutralist state, and a weak one. And this is by design: No one wanted to put the capital of Europe in a strong state. Its dysfunction is linked to its function as Europe’s capital. Writing for Germany’s Der Spiegel, Peter Müller said what everyone in Europe thinks:

There will be much written about how the terrorists targeted Europe’s heart and why they put a bull’s-eye on the European Union and its capital. None of that is incorrect, but it misses the larger point. In truth, the attackers didn’t target Brussels because the EU is based here. They targeted Brussels because nowhere else in Europe is it so easy to plan and carry out an attack.

That is not incorrect either, but it too misses the larger point. Ultimately, the EU and NATO are based in Brussels precisely because nowhere else in Europe is it so easy to plan and carry out a wider attack. “The capital of Europe” was a fantasist’s creation. There are only two real capitals of Europe: Paris and Berlin. Neither could be the nominal capital of Europe, for obvious reasons. London can’t even decide whether it wants to be part of Europe, much less its capital. Only a weak country such as Belgium could at once be both European enough and neutral enough to be host to Europe’s capital. And thus the capital of Europe became its softest target.

The attack in Brussels was prefigured by another, three days earlier, on Istanbul’s busiest street, Istiklal Caddesi. The explosion killed five people. Turkish authorities first blamed the PKK, by reflex, and then blamed a Turkish-born member of ISIS. The attack was quickly overshadowed in the Western media by the attack on Belgium, but it should not have been. They were related.

Both were attacks on what ISIS calls the gray zone: places where Muslims have not yet been forced to choose sides. The world today, ISIS claims, is divided into two camps, that of kufr, or unbelief, and that of Islam. In between lies the gray zone, inhabited by those who call themselves Muslims yet fail to join ISIS. It is, they say, a state of hypocrisy. ISIS’s attacks on Europe are designed to destroy the gray zone, making it impossible to be a Muslim in the West. Its attacks in the Islamic world are designed to prove the local governments incapable of controlling the chaos. In both places, the attacks are designed to prepare the public for a power grab by a force that can restore order. The ordering force will be ISIS itself, or a government that makes life intolerable for ordinary Muslims, forcing them to leave the gray zone and flee to ISIS-controlled territory.

ISIS has made its strategy publicly known. Killing Europeans, ISIS says, will damage the social trust between native Europeans and Muslims, bringing to power anti-immigrant, far-right parties that will make life unbearable for Muslims, giving rise to another generation of jihadists to replace those dying on the battlefield in Syria.

Who would benefit from this? ISIS would, obviously. But ISIS won’t: The world is arrayed against it. It is therefore Russia that will benefit. Russia backs Europe’s anti-immigration parties; it magnifies, through its impressive propaganda organs, the divisions among European nations about how best to manage the refugee crisis. The parties least welcoming to refugees are the ones most eager to enter a closer alliance with Russia and to end the sanctions Russia faces as punishment for its annexation of Crimea and invasion of the Donbass. To read Russia’s propaganda outlets in Europe, one would think Russia had been bravely fighting ISIS in Syria rather than rubbing out the United States’ proxies. You would not know at all that Russia and Bashar al-Assad stayed well clear of ISIS, leaving the task of dealing with it to the United States.

ISIS and Russia share a vision of a Europe divided, chaotic, riven with ethnic and sectarian tension, and unfree. For ISIS, this is a means to replenish the ranks of its fighters and ultimately to expand the caliphate to Europe. For Russia, it is a means to keep U.S. troops, weapons, and liberal political ideas far from its borders. Putin seeks a weakened, confused West, one unsure whether the NATO alliance is worth it. ISIS is helping him get it.

After the attack in Brussels, the Brexit campaign made its case: Britain, surely, would be more secure out of a Europe so incompetent that it couldn’t even prevent this abomination in its own capital. But would the collapse of the EU ameliorate or exacerbate this problem? Would there be less insecurity and instability were Europe returned to its historic condition as a gaggle of states unable to live in peace? Really? At least 1,500 years of history would suggest otherwise.

With the exception of the wars of Yugoslavian succession, Europe has been at peace since 1945. The longest comparable period of peace lasted from 1878 and the Congress of Berlin to 1914 and the outbreak of the First World War. Would there be more security if each renewed nation-state were free to control its borders? Would Greece and Germany find their relationship less fraught if, in effect, it were Germany versus Greece, with no EU in place to oil hinges that for now are at least swinging, even if they’re squeaking? If Poland, Hungary, and even Germany were again to become entirely sovereign states, would there be a lesser or a greater danger of extremism? The answer is obvious. No single European government’s security apparatus is remotely adequate to deal with a transnational terrorist threat or an imperial Russia.

We spend too much time parsing the ideology of the terrorists and not enough studying the way democracies react to terrorism. The waves of left- and right-wing terrorism in the 1970s prompted, among other things, a coup to restore order in Turkey in 1980. The world still suffers the effects of that coup. Whether terrorism is committed by violent leftists or Islamists, people react to it in predictable ways. It prompts them to look for protection. This time ISIS is creating the useful chaos in Europe, but Moscow still seeks to exploit it to its own geopolitical ends. This is not to say that ISIS has no independent existence, ideology, or aims; of course it does, as did the Baader-Meinhof Gang and the Red Brigades. They were indigenous radical forces, and forces a larger, stronger state could exploit.

Europe has been crippled by economic stagnation and whipsawed by the refugee crisis. Populist parties have risen in response. Russia has financed them. ISIS might seem the center of events, but it is a sideshow: The larger story is the unlikely rebirth of imperial Russia, and the unlikely collapse of imperial America.

The NATO alliance was established, as its first secretary general, Hastings Ismay, said, “to keep the Americans in, the Russians out, and the Germans down.” The effect of this new terrorist wave — if not its intent — will be to push the Americans out and bring the Russians in, via propaganda, hybrid attacks (a mix of conventional weapons, irregular tactics, terrorism, and criminal behavior in the same time and battlespace to obtain political objectives), and the ballot box. When that occurs, we may assume that Germany will not stay down. Whether anyone wants the kind of united Germany that might arise in response to these pressures is a question better asked now than later.

Europe’s natural tendency is to fragment. Everything is working against European unity, which from a security perspective is what Europe needs most. And once again, Europe’s fate is in the hands of the superpowers: Moscow and Washington. The latter has recently decided, against all evidence and argument, that it is poor and weak; the former has decided, against all evidence and argument, that it is strong and back.

A great and visionary American president would see the danger and be a visible presence here in Europe now, but instead we have Obama in Cuba and Trump wondering why we need to bother with NATO at all — leaving Russia poised to win by default.

– Claire Berlinski is the author of Menace in Europe: Why the Continent’s Crisis Is America’s, Too. She writes for

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