Over 500 Belgian Muslims have been involved in Syria or Iraq

By Diana Pearl
Updated March 22, 2016 06:50 PM
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The world grieved for Paris last November after a series of coordinated terrorist attacks claimed by the Islamic group ISIS left 130 people dead. But when the smoke cleared, attention soon shifted to neighboring Brussels, specifically the heavily Muslim-immigrant suburb of Molenbeek – where security officials say the attackers met to build bombs and hatch their plan.

“These acts of war have been decided and planned in Syria, they have been organized in Belgium and perpetrated on our soil with French accomplices,” French president Francoise Hollande said in the wake of the attacks.

On Friday, counter-terrorism authorities arrested the final suspect in the Paris terrorist attacks in Molenbeek – Salah Abdeslam.

Now, terrorism has come home to Brussuels. Authorities believe the same ISIS-linked terror cell that carried out the Paris attacks struck the EU capital on Tuesdaay, killing 34 and wounding at least 187.

But how did Belgium, a country with a population smaller than the state of New York and best known across the globe for great chocolate, beer and waffles, become Europe’s most notorious breeding ground for terrorists?

1. Brussels is the center of political activity in Europe.
While it may be a relatively small city compared to capitals of neighboring nations – Brussels has a population of just over 177,000, and cities like Paris and London have 2.2 million and 8.5 million, respectively – it wields a lot of influence. The European Union headquarters are located in the center of Brussels, as is the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), which runs many of the international operations to target ISIS.

2. There’s a large, isolated Muslim community.
Thanks to Islamophobic sentiments swirling in the country, Brussels’ Muslim population is increasingly isolated from the rest of the nation. Facing discrimination from the Belgian people, there’s a lack of professional opportunities for Belgian Muslims – and in turn, their resentment towards the country grows. As an anonymous Belgian Muslim told CNN: “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.’

About 630,000 Muslims live in Belgium – about 6 percent of the population. In the United States, by comparison, Muslims make up about 1 percent of the population.

Many Belgian Muslims live together in Molenbeek, a heavily Muslim suburb that counts 22 mosques within its city limits and has become infamous as a birthplace for jihadists.

“Unfortunately for my country Belgium has a lot of fighters, a lot of people going to fight with ISIS,” Alain Georges Matton, a former EU diplomat who now works in Brussels, told PEOPLE.

There’s even a group, Sharia4Belgium, that calls for the end of democratic Belgium and the creation of an Islamic state. The organization has been on the country’s radar for a while now: In February 2015, Sharia4Belgium’s leader, Fouad Belkacem, was sentenced to 12 years in prison, and 45 other members were found guilty of terror-related crimes, according to the BBC.

According to Pieter van Ostaeyen, a Belgian scholar of Muslim culture, there have been as many as 516 Belgium residents who have been joined Islamist groups in either Iraq or Syria (as of October 2015).

3. There is a substantial black market for weapons in the country.
Belgium: The land of mussels, french fries, waffles and easily-obtainable military weapons. In Brussels, in particular, obtaining military-grade weapons is easy – and cheap – thanks to the black market, American security officials tell PEOPLE. That means for those looking to plan attacks of this scale, there’s no need to smuggle weapons into the country: They’re ready and waiting for them there.

The country has been known as the place to go in Europe to buy guns for decades, an official says. Until a shooting spree occurred in 2006, the only thing a citizen needed to buy a weapon in Belgium was an ID card. Nils Duquet, an arms expert at the Flemish Peace Institute, says that new gun laws were too late to make any sort of major dent in the number of weapons floating around the country.

“We had got a reputation,” Duquet told The Financial Times. “People knew Belgium was a place to go to buy guns.”

But what really stocked the black market are arms that came in from the former Soviet Union. After the fall of the Soviet Union, there was an influx of illegal weapons coming into the country, which even today continues to populate Belgium’s illegal weapon trade.

4. The last person involved with the Paris attacks was arrested in the city last week.
Perhaps the most obvious catalyst for today’s attacks – at the very least, the timing of them – is the arrest of Salah Abdeslam, the last surviving suspect in the November 13 attacks in Paris.

He was captured just last Friday, March 18, through a series of raids in Molenbeek and was found just 10 minutes from his mother’s house. In the build-up to the Paris attacks, Abdeslam (whose brothers, Ibrahim and Mohammed, were also allegedly involved in the Paris attacks) was responsible for the bulk of the logistics, including renting cars and apartments and transporting co-conspirators, officials told the New York Times.

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5. The government stands on a shaky foundation.
Perhaps more than no other western European nation, Belgium’s government is frequently in a state of dysfunction.

For 20 months (or 289 days), the nation existed without a government (suddenly, the United States’ 16-day shutdown in 2013 doesn’t seem so bad) after the prime minister resigned in April 2010. After his departure, there was no new parliamentary majority – and negotiations throughout 2010 and most of 2011 kept it that way. It marked the longest-ever wait for a government in history.

The government may be up and running again, but the country is undeniably divided. The country of 11.5 million, counts four major native languages (French, Dutch, Flemish and German). The nation is also split between the wealthier, Flemish-language northern half and the more working-class, French-speaking southern region. The Belgian government has perhaps been occupied with other concerns – yes, maybe too occupied – to deal with the rising number of ISIS converts in the country, some critics say.

Reporting by SUSAN KEATING and CHAR ADAMS