More young Belgian men are traveling to join ISIS in Iraq and Syria than any other European country
The country's cultural and language divides, along with easy access to major European cities, make it a good location for jihadists
Belgium is playing catch-up responding to security threats; resources haven't been deployed
Twin bombing attacks in Brussels that killed 28 people and injured more than 300 sent shock waves throughout Europe and shone a spotlight on Belgium as a fertile ground for terrorism.
How did a small country about the size of the state of Maryland spiral from a renowned architectural and cultural hub to a hotbed of violent jihadist ideology?
Here are five reasons why terrorists struck at the heart of Europe:
1. Belgium has an abundance of foreign fighters
Per capita, more young Belgian men are traveling to join ISIS in Iraq and Syria than any other European country.
Experts believe that nearly 500 men and women have left Belgium for those two countries since 2012. At least 150 of them have returned, according to Belgian officials.
However, experts admit the numbers are on the conservative side; no one knows for certain exactly how many have gone and how many have returned.
As result, Belgian authorities and the public had for some time feared an attack by homegrown jihadists.
Sajjan Gohel, international security director for the Asia-Pacific Foundation think tank, said Belgium is not only the capital of the European Union but also “a central hub for ISIS,” a logistical base of operations for extremists.
Many extremists in Belgium have been inspired by the once-powerful radical group Sharia4Belgium, which targeted vulnerable and disenfranchised communities marred by rampant crime and unemployment.
The group gained prominence in 2010 and was disbanded five years later after a trial that resulted in its designation as a terror organization.
“The Belgian authorities did not take Sharia4Belgium seriously until it was too late,” CNN contributor Tim Lister said. “The damage had been done.”
Belgium Interior Minister Jan Jambon said the work of security forces to counter terror threats has had an impact but admitted ISIS recruiters still actively ply their trade in Belgium.
“Recruitment continues – at a much lower level than we were used to, for example two years ago – but yes, it continues,” Jambon said. “It is difficult to find the people.”
2. Police resources are inadequate
During a search for evidence at what turned out to be at least one of Abdeslam’s safe houses last week, police were met with a barrage of gunfire that tipped them off that something inside – or someone – was important. Abdeslam, who had abandoned his suicide belt in Paris during the November attacks, escaped again – only to be cornered in a daring daytime raid a few days later in Brussels’ Molenbeek neighborhood, not far from his childhood home.
The scope of jihadist activity across Belgium appeared to blindside authorities.
“They don’t have enough law enforcement officers, and they haven’t been able to ramp up at the same rate as foreign fighter recruitment has ramped up,” said William Braniff, executive director of the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism. “It’s a math game. It’s resources.”
It took authorities four months to capture Abdeslam, the most wanted man in Europe.
The inability to apprehend the Belgian-born French citizen of Moroccan descent was particularly irksome because police stopped him the morning after the November 13 attacks near the Belgian border but did not detain him.
He is believed to have called friends to take him to Belgium after the attacks. They passed through police checkpoints, but Abdeslam had not yet been identified as a suspect and they were allowed to continue on their way.
Are Belgian authorities responsible, at least in part, for this rupture?
Jambon suggested Thursday that Belgian authorities may be responsible, at least in part, for the some of the failings in stopping the bloodshed, especially after Turkey’s presidency revealed that it had captured bomber Ibrahim El Bakraoui in June 2015 and deported him to Europe, where he was set free.
Bakraoui, 29, is the suicide bomber shown in the middle of the airport photograph released after this week’s attack. He was the brother of Khalid El Bakraoui, who blew himself up in the Brussels subway train.
3. Many Muslim youth there feel marginalized
Like the fabled Dutch boy who saved the Netherlands from flooding by putting his finger in a dike, Belgium has sought to hold back another force of nature: A disaffected, disassociated youth, warped and wrapped in ISIS’ corrosive ideology, according to CNN’s International Diplomatic Editor Nic Robertson.
Their numbers have outstripped the country’s counterterrorism efforts.
“Belgium is playing catch-up,” Lister said.
A young man from Belgium named Ali (not his real name) agreed to speak to CNN on condition of anonymity. He sobbed as he told of how two of his brothers, members of Sharia4Belgium, made the trip to Syria, where one was killed.
He believes discrimination and a “lack of opportunities” have driven many young men into harm’s way, even though they are second or third generation, because they simply don’t feel accepted in Belgium. Jihadi recruiters exploit this sense of marginalization.
“The Belgian state rejects children and young people; they say, ‘They are all foreigners, why should we give them a job?,’” he said. “They fill us with hate, and they say we aren’t of any use, so when young people see what’s going on over there [in Syria], they think ‘Well OK, let’s go there and be useful.’”
Jambon insists the government is working hard to prevent radicalized youngsters from leaving the country.
“One-and-a-half years ago, we had 15 persons per month leaving for Syria or Iraq, now it’s less than five,” he said. “Five is too much, I am aware of that. … If you see that people are still leaving to join ISIS, we didn’t do enough. That’s clear. The aim, the goal, is zero people.”
Molenbeek has a large, predominantly Muslim population of immigrants from North Africa. The neighborhood also suffers from soaring youth unemployment estimated at more than 40%.
While unemployment is rampant, online propaganda for ISIS’ bloody interpretation of jihad is often only a click away.
Family and community members who to try to stop the radicalization open themselves up to threats.
“We live in an era where everybody that tries to speak out and stand up for the truth will find people trying to stop him from doing so,” Belgian Imam Sheikh Sulayman Van Ael said.
4. Belgium is divided by geography and language
Belgium is a small country of 11 million people that’s divided by language and culture. Slightly more than half of Belgium’s population is Flemish. They speak Dutch and live in the north, in Flanders. Less than half are French and live in the southern region of Wallonia.
“The construct of the Belgium government makes it possible for these kind of attacks to happen,” said Gohel, adding that the country’s security and intelligence agencies are divided internally.
The country at every level and almost every public service – schools, hospitals, even policing – is split along the lines of language. There are French schools and Flemish schools, French hospitals and Flemish hospitals.
Brussels is the capital of Belgium and Flanders, but Brussels is French-speaking.
It was only in 2011 that Belgium ended a record-breaking 589 days without an elected government. Iraq had the previous longest record without a functioning government.
A temporary caretaker government had been in place since Prime Minister Yves Leterme’s resignation was accepted on April 26, 2010, with politicians locked in a stalemate between Flanders and Wallonia.
5. It’s close to big European cities
Brussels’ proximity to major European cities and historic lack of internal cohesion makes it enticing to jihadists who move about with relative ease.
Brussels, the capital of the European Union, is just a short drive away from a host of major cities: Paris and Strasbourg, of course, but also Amsterdam and, in Germany, Cologne, Frankfurt and Berlin. Hop into a car or onto a train and you can be in any number of European cities within a few hours. Only recently, especially after the Paris attacks, did some European nations begin implementing immigration checks.
The inability of Belgian officials to quell the flow of fighters traveling to ISIS territory, and – perhaps more worryingly – their inability to track them once they return, mean many jihadists have gone unnoticed. Authorities in several neighboring countries believe other attacks are likely.
CNN’s Bryony Jones contributed to this report.