War Stories

It’s No Mystery Why ISIS Picked Brussels as a Base

Belgium’s government is a hodgepodge with dueling, uncooperative intelligence agencies.

Police officers block access to Maelbeek metro station in Brussels on Tuesday after terrorist attacks shocked the city.

Philippe Huguen/AFP/Getty Images

Last November, shortly after the terrorist attacks in Paris, the leaders of France and the European Union said they would move quickly to help Belgium build up its intelligence capabilities. The reasons were clear and the task was urgent. Most of the Paris terrorists had lived in Brussels, and all of them had easily crisscrossed the Belgian-French border. The weapons used in the Charlie Hebdo attack the previous January had been funneled through Belgium. One of Europe’s most popular Islamist websites, Sharia4Belgium, was hiding almost in plain sight in the country of its namesake.

And yet, it was just this past Monday—one day before the suicide bombings in Brussels—that French and Belgian intelligence officials met for the first time to affirm their dedication to work together in the fight against extremism.

In other words, the mystery that many are struggling to solve—why Brussels has emerged as the locus of jihadist terrorism in Europe—isn’t really a mystery at all. It doesn’t stem entirely from the intense marginalization of the city’s Muslim population, a problem providing fodder for radical proselytizers in several Western cities. What distinguishes Brussels, as a target and a base for terrorists, has more to do with the limits of Belgium as a functioning state, a problem exacerbated by the limits of the EU as a cohesive political body.

Belgium is a federation of three regions—Brussels-Capital, Flanders, and Wallonia—that are nearly as disparate as the Balkans without the ethnic hatred. Yet they are still imbued with secessionist sentiments, bolstered by differences in language: in Belgium’s case, French, Dutch, and German.

The country has three separate parliaments and two distinct intelligence services—the civilian State Security Service and the military General Intelligence and Security Service—which meddle in each other’s affairs as little as possible. The federal police force, which also has intelligence functions (though is not considered an intelligence agency), reports to the interior minister, a Flemish nationalist named Jan Jambon, who, as the New York Times reported late last year, “has doubts about whether Belgium … should even exist as a single state.”

More than this, the State Security Service is unable to collect its own foreign intelligence, “except,” as one analyst of Belgian security politics notes, “where acquired through partner organizations.” One such partner organization could have been French intelligence, which pledged cooperation in the wake of the Paris attacks, but the project crawled much too sluggishly into being, and even then only in the form of lip service.

Here, then, is another area where the European Union has proved so disappointing. Its member nations share a common currency and wide-open borders—remarkable achievements—but no unified political structure, which means no common defense or data-sharing intelligence apparatus.

The EU set up a facility nearly a decade ago to share intelligence on terrorism, among other threats, but it can only be as effective as its member nations’ politicians want it to be, and—as the evidence of recent days suggests—they have not gone out of their way to make it so. With few exceptions (and the EU nations are not among them), national intelligence agencies tend not to trust other nations’ intelligence agencies enough to share their nuggets.

It’s not surprising, then, that ISIS regards Brussels as its Western hub. The mystery is why the city hasn’t been the scene or the planning grounds for still more horrible crimes—and why the Europeans and the United States haven’t banded together much sooner, or now more swiftly, to stop them from happening again.

Read more of Slate’s coverage of the Brussels terror attacks.