A month before the Paris terrorist attacks, Mayor Françoise Schepmans of Molenbeek, a Brussels district long notorious as a haven for jihadis, received a list with the names and addresses of more than 80 people suspected as Islamic militants living in her area.
The list, based on information from Belgium’s security apparatus, included two brothers who would take part in the bloodshed in France on November 13, as well as the man suspected of being the architect of the terrorist plot, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, a Molenbeek resident who had left for Syria to fight for the Islamic State in early 2014.
“What was I supposed to do about them? It is not my job to track possible terrorists,” Ms. Schepmans said in an interview. That, she added, “is the responsibility of the Federal Police.”
The Federal Police service, for its part, reports to Interior Minister Jan Jambon, a Flemish nationalist who has doubts about whether Belgium — divided among French, Dutch and German speakers — should even exist as a single state.
As Brussels remained locked down for a fourth day, facing what the authorities say is its own imminent terrorist threat, the failure to stop two brothers clearly flagged as extremists before the Paris carnage highlighted the tribal squabbles of a country that holds the unenviable distinction of going without a functioning government for 541 days.
Flemish nationalists, ever eager to show that Belgium in its current form does not work, have jumped on the mess, with Karl Vanlouwe, a member of the Belgian Senate, writing in the newspaper Le Soir on Tuesday that “20 years of laxity” by the French-speaking Socialist Party had turned Brussels into a “rear base of Islamic barbarity.”
The perennial dysfunctions of a small country with just 11.2 million people would not normally transcend its borders, but they are now blamed for having helped turn Belgium into a hub of terrorist activity that is threatening lives as well as the Continent’s troubled enterprise of integration and intelligence sharing.
Belgium has a government, unlike the long stretch of limbo after inconclusive elections in 2010. But with its capital paralysed and its political elite pointing fingers over who is to blame for letting jihadis go unchecked, the country is again being ridiculed as the world’s most prosperous failed state.
An Italian newspaper called it “Belgistan,” and a German one declared Belgium “kaput.” A French writer, Éric Zemmour, suggested in a recent radio interview that instead of bombing Raqqa, Syria, the self-proclaimed capital of the Islamic State, “France should bomb Molenbeek.”
Belgians, accustomed to being derided, particularly by the French, have, in the main, not risen to the bait, although the editor in chief of the newspaper La Libre, Francis Van de Woestyne, complained on Tuesday that “French condescension has no limits.”
But Belgians, too, are wondering what went wrong in Molenbeek and in the system as a whole.
A political maze
With three uneasily joined populations, Belgium has a dizzying plethora of institutions and political parties divided along linguistic, ideological or simply opportunistic lines, which are being blamed for the country’s seeming inability to get a handle on its terrorist threat.
It was hardly difficult to find the two Molenbeek brothers before they helped kill 130 people in the Paris assaults: they lived just 100 yards from the borough’s City Hall, across a cobblestone market square in a subsidized borough-owned apartment clearly visible from the mayor’s second-floor corner office. A third brother worked for Schepmans’ borough administration.
Much more difficult, however, was negotiating the labyrinthine pathways that connect — and also divide — a multitude of bodies responsible for security in Brussels, a capital city with six local police forces and a Federal Police service. — New York Times News Service