On Tuesday, a series of terror attacks in Belgium’s capital, Brussels — two at the city’s international airport and one inside a subway station — killed at least 34 people and wounded hundreds.
Belgium is already at the center of discussions about extremist terrorism. There’s going to be a lot of new information coming in (and a lot of conclusions jumped to), so if you’re consuming the news, here’s some context you should be aware of:
1. Brussels is the unofficial capital of the European Union, and the European Union is having some weird times right now.
By the end of World War II, European leaders had watched extreme nationalism plunge the continent into two horrific wars — and they wanted to prevent a third. “Integration” was their solution — limiting the significance of national borders between countries and making it clear that all Europeans had a role to play in preserving peace.
Today, the European Union has 28 member states, its own currency (the Euro), its own bank, and its own parliament. Brussels is home to multiple EU institutions. But since 2008, keeping the blended family together has gotten harder as stark new challenges have emerged.
First and foremost, the current refugee crisis has seen millions of people, in an effort to escape violence in Northern Africa and the Middle East, flee to Europe — putting countries right on the Mediterranean (i.e., Greece and Italy) under a ton of economic and social pressure. To make matters worse, those same countries have been terribly weakened by the global financial crisis (remember The Big Short?) and are economically stagnant (complete with bailouts — enormous loans from European central monetary institutions — and mass unemployment). Now, in their view, they are being asked to take on thousands of refugees in need of housing and support, and voters are blaming those refugees for their problems. Some countries within the EU are building fences to prevent refugees from entering, and nationalist (and staunchly anti-immigrant) parties are winning votes and gaining support across the continent. Britain is even expected to vote this year on leaving the EU because of these and other concerns. In short, no one’s super-happy.
2. Belgium is a divided country — and that’s not good for national security.
Belgium is in an unusual position of being, well … let’s just say that Belgium didn’t actually have a government for 535 days (in 2010 and 2011). It’s been called the “world’s most prosperous failed state,” and a lot of people within Belgium don’t think Belgium — as a country — should exist at all.
See, Belgians are split among three major groups: French Belgians, Flemish Belgians, and German Belgians. The Flemish in the north and the French in the south do not get along, and haven’t for generations. Many residents of the north (a region known as Flanders) want Belgium to disintegrate into separate countries. The divide between Flemish and French Belgians is incredibly complicated, but it contributes to an environment in which Brussels, a city of about 1.4 million people, contains six separate police departments that don’t all get along, and in which terror response at the federal level is scattered, with little coordination between local and federal officials. The poorest area in Brussels, called Molenbeek — where the instigators of the terror attacks in Paris lived (and hid) — is about 100 yards away from City Hall, yet the police department serving that area is one of the poorest-funded. Because of these challenges, Belgium hasn’t been well positioned to concentrate on preventing attacks, and has as a result become extremely vulnerable.
3. Historically, Belgium was a leading colonial power — and that history has played a role in recent attacks.
We’ve seen a spate of recent terror attacks directed at former colonial powers. You may not have heard much about these attacks in American media because they didn’t directly involve Western countries (and that sucks, too). In Ivory Coast last week, hotels were attacked by an al-Qaida offshoot (AQIM). Other attacks across the African continent — in Mali on Monday and Burkina Faso in January — have been aimed at French interests by a rabidly anti-French* group headquartered in Mali, a former French colony. There’s a pattern here.
What does this mean for Belgium? Remember that it was once a colonial leader that controlled an area of central Africa (the Congo) 75 times its own size. Belgium’s leadership in the Congo was bad. Really, really bad. (And after the Congo gained independence, Belgium then helped assassinate its first prime minister in 1961, apologizing for doing so in 2002).**
We have a lot left to learn about who and what motivated these attacks, and we’ll be doing so in the coming days, weeks, and months. This is a huge discussion that can go in a lot of different directions, but as you can see, organizations looking to leverage unrest in the EU have a lot of material to work with.There’s a lot of bad blood here, and terror groups like ISIS and al-Qaida are using it to further their own goals of division and fear.
Let’s be clear: The terrorists who have committed these attacks and killed people across Europe and the African continent (specifically the strip of countries that separates North Africa from states further south) are garbage. They are using historical narratives to which they have no right to justify terrorism, pure and simple. It’s some serious bullshit. But to understand it, and stop it, we need to educate ourselves about their purported motivations — and continue to listen and learn more going forward.
* When AQIM became an al-Qaida affiliate in 2006, the group’s second-in-command said he planned to position his organization as “a bone in the throat of the American and French crusaders and their allies.”
** This whole incident was really, really, really bad.