How Belgium Turned Brussels Into An ISIS Powder Keg

BelgiumBelgian police stage a raid in search of suspected Muslim fundamentalists linked to the attacks in Paris, in the Brussels suburb of Molenbeek on November 16, 2015.


About a dozen years ago, I stepped into a Brussels taxi and gave the driver a note with an address on it. He took it silently, set the meter and drove off through the city’s bustling, high-end hotel district. The gleaming steel and glass storefronts for Gucci, Tiffany and Dior soon gave way to grittier streets.

I was on a mission to find and photograph a house where a friend’s father, a B-17 pilot, had been hidden by the anti-Nazi underground during World War II. A riveting book about his daring escape from Brussels through France, The Freedom Line, suggested that the neighborhood where he was hidden was populated back then by middle-class burghers living in neat rows of pastel-colored brick townhouses.

“Why are you going there?” my driver asked, his North African, Arab features—dark eyes and wiry black hair—framed by the rear view mirror.

I told him my story.

“It’s very different now,” I recall him saying. “It’s all Arab.” And then, unprompted, he delivered a bitter lecture on the history of Arabs in Belgium, how they were imported from North Africa in the 1950s and 1960s as cheap labor to work in the factories. Most of those businesses had moved on, he said, leaving the immigrants unemployed with no real future for decades.

In January, youth unemployment sat at nearly 23 percent, according to official estimates. “Although there are no statistics for Muslim employment levels,” the Euro-Islam website says, citing the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, “the foreign-born have unemployment rates more than twice that of indigenous Belgians.”

The street I was looking for in 2004 abuts the Schaerbeek neighborhood, where on Tuesday Belgian police were desperately searching for perpetrators of the spectacular attacks hours earlier on the Brussels airport and a metro station. The Islamic State group, known as ISIS, claimed responsibility for the attacks, which killed at least 31 people and wounded more than 80. The group has called for Muslims in the West to rise up and carry out attacks on their own.

Authorities have said their hunt for extremists since last November’s attacks in Paris have been hindered by a passive acquiescence on the part of Muslim immigrants to the presence of anti-Western militants in their midst.

(On Tuesday, an umbrella group of Belgian Muslims condemned the attacks, saying they “complicate the efforts of society…and the entire Muslim community in favor of a harmonious coexistence.” Previously, the group had been “criticized…for not condemning the violence of the group that calls itself the Islamic State,” according to the Religion News Service.)

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