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The most important things to read to understand how Brussels became a terrorism hub

Police officers patrol outside Maelbeek metro station following todays attack on March 22, 2016, in Brussels, Belgium.
Police officers patrol outside Maelbeek metro station following todays attack on March 22, 2016, in Brussels, Belgium.
Carl Court/Getty Images

Bomb blasts rocked an international airport and a metro stop in Brussels this morning, killing at least 34 and thrusting Belgium's ties to terrorist plots back into the spotlight.

For years now, a number of terrorist plots in Europe and abroad have connected back to Brussels, the capital of Belgium.

Belgium is a relatively small country, but its capital is home to a well-oiled underground jihadist pipeline that has sent more than 400 fighters to Syria, making the nation Europe’s largest per capita source of fighters to Syria.

Belgian gunmen helped carry out the Paris attacks on November 13. But Belgian involvement in terrorism plots goes back at least as far as the Madrid train attacks in 2004, when one of the suspected terrorists came from the Brussels neighborhood of Molenbeek.

On Friday, the man believed to be the mastermind behind the Paris attacks, Salah Abdeslam, was captured by police in Brussels. He was the last known living suspect in the Paris attacks, though police are now looking for several other men who they believe were closely linked to his operations.

Abdeslam's capture triggered fear that terrorists would launch a retaliatory attack, and indeed officials across the city attempted to prepare for such a likelihood, increasing police presence at the airport and throughout the city’s metro system — where today’s attacks occurred.

But how did Belgium find itself at the center of a burgeoning terrorist network? Here are a few sources of reading to help you get a clearer picture.

Most of the suspected terrorists originate from just one neighborhood: Molenbeek

1) A portrait of Molenbeek: At first glance, Molenbeek doesn’t look all that different from other working-class Belgian neighborhoods. Across the canal from the fashionable Sainte Catherine district, the area is lined with gritty but not unattractive low-rise Victorian buildings. Beneath that facade, though, Molenbeek has been plagued by persistent poverty for years, and drugs and other street crimes are now common.

Muslim residents, who make up around 25 to 30 percent of the neighborhood’s population, complain in particular of limited educational and economic opportunities — the exact sort of brew that stirs up despair and disillusionment.

For a fuller portrait of the troubled neighborhood, read CityLab’s in-depth look at Molenbeek.

2) Poverty and discrimination go hand in hand in Molenbeek. This is perhaps best illustrated by the quote a young man gave the French newspaper Le Monde.

"Please understand that if lots of young people have left for Syria, it’s above all because no one’s ever paid them any attention, until these fanatics gave them the impression that at last they were going to truly exist. Me, I study and I speak French, Arabic and Dutch. But to look for a job I give the address of a friend, who doesn’t live in Molenbeek."

3) The New York Times outlines the lackluster security apparatus monitoring Molenbeek: an inadequate registration system to track residents moving to and from Brussels, a mostly white police force with tenuous connections to the population, and federal agencies, divided by linguistic and cultural barriers, that often don’t coordinate investigations.

In a potent demonstration of its failure, following the Paris attacks the Belgian government admitted it had virtually no handle on the terrorist networks blossoming in Molenbeek.

Belgium itself is divided, making it tougher for immigrants to integrate

4) Belgium’s government is divided into the Dutch-speaking Flemish region in the north and the French-speaking Wallonia region in the south. The two areas govern themselves, bound by a strong sense of local, rather than national, allegiances. This linguistic and cultural divide leaves little room for coordination at the national level, and allows places like Molenbeek to be neglected. For a better understanding of the breakdown of federal authority, read Politico’s provocative essay "Belgium is a failed state."

5) Or take it directly from a Belgian citizen, who wrote in an op-ed in the New York Times, "Listening to their respective media outlets and politicians, you could be forgiven for thinking that the country of Belgium doesn’t exist. The two communities live completely apart."

6) This split society makes it particularly tough for Muslim immigrants to assimilate. The Atlantic explains that most Muslim immigrants only speak French, and the French-speaking regions of Belgium are less wealthy, making it tougher for these immigrants to find work and cement ties in the community.

7) Strong anti-Islamic sentiments certainly exist in the country too. In 2010, Belgium’s divided parliament voted to ban the Islamic full-face veil, or burqa, though only perhaps several dozen of the nation’s women wore the coverings out of nearly half a million Muslim citizens. Der Spiegel, the German magazine, reported that Belgium’s Muslims took the near-unanimous vote as an affront to their identity.

The Molenbeek-Syria pipeline

8) Because of Belgium’s poor economic and social conditions, coupled with strong anti-immigrant sentiments, the social isolation of Muslim youths is particularly acute. The National takes a detailed look at young Muslim radicalization.

9) With conditions ripe to radicalize young Muslims, they then simply need a place to go. A group called Sharia4Belgium is at the center of this Washington Post profile of Molenbeek. The organization formed to funnel Belgian citizens into the Syrian war, providing logistical and financial assistance. The group also uses social media platforms such as Facebook to advertise the lives that await Belgians in Syria — images that often depict luxuries like large homes and swimming pools, which stand in stark opposition to the underprivileged lives Belgian Muslims are living at home.

President Obama comments on the terrorist attack in Brussels

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