Lots of ink has flown since the terrorist attacks in Paris, a lot of it was a bunch of nonsense. I’m not going to address that. What I will speak of is how the attacks relate to my home country, Belgium, what the future holds and how I plan on living my life in this “new” reality. To do that, I have to go against my policy of refusing to talk politics. To paint you an accurate picture, I need to address the political situation in Belgium even though I’d rather not get into it. To be clear:
- I will not engage in political discussions in the comments section. If you do so, I will either block your comment or ignore you.
- Both people from the left and the right will not appreciate what I have to say. If I get everybody upset, I’ll probably come closer to the truth than if I only get one side angry. For the record: I despise all politicians equally.
- If you do get angry, see the first point in this list.
- I will only speak of Belgium. If any of it applies to your country too, fine. If it doesn’t, equally fine as I wasn’t talking about your country to begin with.
That said, here are my thoughts.
The Paris terrorist attacks
Last Friday, I drove through one of the Brussels municipalities called Molenbeek (we’ll get back to that) on my way to dinner with friends. I made some comments to my girlfriend about the state that municipality is in, the problems there and how one day, it’ll blow up… A few hours later we left the restaurant, I checked my cellphone and saw the news of the Paris terrorist attacks. My first thought was “It’s begun.”
The writing has been on the wall for years for the Paris attacks, I’ve often stated both in private and in public that terrorist attacks are to come both in Europe in general and in Belgium in particular. Back then, the response I usually got was ridicule or eye-rolling. Today, the response is fear and panic. Neither response is useful.
It’s early days, but from the looks of it, this is the attack I’ve feared for a long time was coming. Some of the changes that have been seeping into EU societies will now pick up steam and get implemented at an increased rate. More on that later, but first and foremost: my condolences to all the families of the victims.
The connection to Belgium
Many of the Islamist terrorist attacks in Europe (and beyond) are linked to Belgium in general and Molenbeek in particular:
- The Paris attacks.
- The Charlie Hebdo attack.
- The Thalys train attack
- The Verviers foiled terrorist plot
- The assassination of Massoud
- The suicide bombing in Iraq
The list is longer than this, but you get the picture: this has been going on for a long time.
There are many reasons why jihadist terrorists find Belgium such an attractive place to stay. I won’t cover all of them, just the ones I feel are most relevant. Let’s start with the first one.
Belgium is an artificial state with systemic failure built into it.
Long story short, Belgium was created as a buffer to keep other European countries from going to war all the time. The current result is three ethnic communities (Dutch-speaking Flemish, French-speaking Walloon and German) forced together into a construction that never worked properly and likely never will. For example, for a country with only about eleven million inhabitants:
- We have nine parliaments and eight governments, three supreme courts, ten provinces and eleven governors. The term “bloated government apparatus” was probably invented here.
- Pillarisation was invented here. The structures of our society are organized along ethnic, religious and ideological lines. Organizations are usually embedded in society on a deep level, often without people even thinking twice about it. They just accept it as a given, ludicrous as it seems.
- Though the Flemish are the majority, they cannot use that power in the federal government. For instance, there are “bolt laws” that require a 2/3 majority in each ethnic group in parliament to change the constitution. There are procedures in place that allow the Walloon minority to invoke a conflict of interest and de facto block all attempts by the Flemish to push through legislation, even if the constitution is in their favour. We’ll get back to this.
- The ethnic divide and the lack of a real democratic process has led to what is called “The Belgian Compromise.” It means that complex issues are settled in a way so that everybody gets something, nobody gets everything but they can all claim to be the winner while still leaving the compromise text vague enough so conflicts will inevitably resume later. As a result, nothing ever gets resolved, including pressing issues like security. We’ll get back to this too.
- “Waffle Iron” politics were the norm until about 1990. This meant that for public works in the Flemish part of Belgium, there was an equal amount spent on the Walloon side and vice versa. It didn’t matter if the work in the other part of the country was necessary or not or if the budget might have been better used otherwise. This is one of the reasons we have a huge national debt that we’re still paying off. More on this too.
There is so much more, but I won’t bore you with the details. Let’s put it this way:
If you’re looking for a country where things are well organized, Belgium isn’t it.
Criminally opportunistic politicians in Brussels
What I mentioned before now comes into play: because of the federal politics, Brussels is a mess. It has its own government, but is also divided into 19 municipalities (all with separate mayors, administrations, police forces, public services, etc.) who refuse to relinquish their power. These are split in 6 police “zones” that don’t make sense and the mayors take turns running these zones. On top of that, Brussels is in constant need of funding despite receiving tons of federal subsidies and is well-known for mismanaging that money and letting the city rot. It is also a constant battleground between the Flemish and Walloon politicians on a federal level with the latter trying to connect it to Walloon territory. Here’s one way in which this is important regarding the terrorists:
The Walloon Socialist Party (which is very strong in Brussels) discovered the potential of the growing immigrant population (which is primarily French speaking) of the city and started catering to it. That way they could grow their numbers to close the gap with the the numeric Flemish majority. The current party leader stated that “the immigrant is the new proletariat” and acted accordingly. Their policies and style of governing in Brussels was primarily aimed at not offending that part of the population instead of running the city well. As a result, Brussels is a city where trash lines the streets, crime is high and unemployment is too.
For twenty years, Socialist Party big shot Philippe Moureaux was mayor in Molenbeek. To say he is controversial is an understatement. Now that the link between his municipality and terrorism has been proven once again, he responds with soundbites like “I left three years ago” or “These problems didn’t exist when I was mayor.” I know LEOs in Molenbeek personally and there are many reasons why they despise him. For instance, giving unofficial orders like not patrolling after sundown during Ramadan or not being seen eating in public during the day. Just to make sure the locals wouldn’t be offended.
It came to the point where criminals pushed to create no-go zones and things like riots, Molotov cocktails thrown at the precinct and police cars, gunfire and more were the norm. The rule of law is not guaranteed there, even today.
Black Sunday and the aftermath
In 1991 far-right party Vlaams Blok had a huge election victory which was dubbed “Black Sunday” by the press. The other parties went into a collective spasm and agreed on a cordon sanitaire. What’s worse, they made sure the media shunned the Vlaams Blok politicians as well and we entered a period of extreme political correctness: anybody who mentioned anything negative about immigrants or Muslims was branded a racist or fascist and whatever he said was discarded, regardless if it was true or not. Some examples:
- In the 1990’s, newspapers were “asked” to use initials instead of writing the full name when reporting crime because it stigmatized immigrants
- In 2001, Marion van San was asked by our Justice Minister to do research on crime in immigrant populations in Belgium. She was later almost publicly lynched when she defended her research because it didn’t fit the politically correct narrative. Since then, precious little research has been done on the topic in Belgium. No researcher wants to kill his own career.
- About five years ago, the head of our NSA gave a rare interview and said that Salafism was the largest threat to democracy in Belgium. Politicians, journalist and pundits came out of the woodwork to discredit him and tag him a racist. After all that has happened, especially in Paris, I’ve yet to hear any of them apologize to him or even admit they were wrong.
There are many more examples, but the end result was that an honest, constructive debate about these issues became impossible. Eventually, most people stopped talking about it publicly to avoid the shaming.
But the problems didn’t go away.
On the contrary, they were not addressed and were allowed to fester.
More than anything, this aspect is a huge part of why jihadists thrive here: people learned to not speak up or suffer the consequences. They learned to not push for reforms that were needed because they would be burned for asking.
I blame the politicians and national media, all of them, on the left, center and right. You might get the impression that I’m singling out the left, but I despise the center and right just as much because they not only allowed this to happen, they contributed to it as well. They collectively swept huge problems in our society under the rug and punished everybody who dared to raise those issues. There are no words for how I loathe them for it.
As Mrs. Hall wrote “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Here in Belgium, that phrase does not apply and it’s shameful. Out of pure electoral gain, politicians muzzled an entire population and created the climate for terrorists to thrive here.
Belgium as a crossroads
Belgium is a tiny country. If I start in the center and drive 60-90 minutes in different directions, I can be in four different countries. People and goods pass through here in big quantities, every day. Along with having the third busiest port in Europe, our elaborate highway and public transportation systems are perfect connections with those other countries. Drugs, weapons, whatever is illegal also passes through here and is relatively easy to buy. So if terrorists want to hit Paris, Brussels is a good place to plan it from. They can drive up there in a few hours to do recon, get the logistics sorted out, buy weapons here and so on.
From a practical standpoint, Belgium makes sense.
Understaffed and underfunded police force
- A friend of mine started out as a LEO in Brussels about 20 years ago. He had to buy his own handcuffs.
- Yesterday, a Police Union official stated that budget cuts have resulted in new officers not getting a uniform: the stock is exhausted and new ones aren’t ordered.
- He also explained how this year, the government has hired 800 recruits but 3000 full-time vacancies remain.
- Until recently, our NSA only had a handful of operatives who spoke Arabic. Yet they were supposed to monitor wire taps and internet communications of hundreds of suspects.
I could go on.
Belgian law enforcement does a rough job with too little means and not enough colleagues to do it well. In Brussels, the problems are compounded by the lack of unified structure (see above) and the political refusal to tackle fundamental problems. A good example of that is the fake passport issue, with the problem running through all layers of government with nobody caring until there was no other choice but to fix it. Keep reading all the pages until the very last paragraph for the kick in the nuts…
Thanks to our inept politicians, our national debt is huge and making the necessary investments in law enforcement and security was never a priority. We already have some of the highest tax rates in the world just to keep the country afloat, more taxes are counter productive. So in essence, the money isn’t there.
Our Interior Minister just announced lots of measures against the terrorists, but he failed to mention we already have budgeting problems enough, there are no logistics and certainly not the trained manpower to do so. But hey, the public needs to be reassured they’re on the case…
The Saudi connection
In Belgium, there are precious few local imams. As a result, they are brought in from abroad. Somebody has to pay for this and often that money comes from Saudi-Arabia. The imams they bring in propagate Wahhabism, a conservative and fundamentalist branch of that faith. There is very little governmental oversight here, which creates a perfect breeding ground for fanatics.
E.g.: About ten years ago, an undercover journalist wrote a book on Islam fundamentalism in Brussels and in particular in Molenbeek. Her findings were shocking, to put it mildly. There was a mild controversy and then life as normal resumed: nothing changed and the fundamentalists were left to do as they pleased.
In a dysfunctional country that is ideally located for branching out to other countries, Molenbeek is a great spot to set up your terrorist shop. Crime is rampant. You can blend in with the natives and not raise suspicion. Law enforcement is handicapped by both the mayor, the chaos that is the city of Brussels and the political games on a federal level. The media will also go out of their way to explain how things aren’t that bad.
What more could terrorists want?
What comes next
I’m not optimistic for the future. Here’s what I see in store for us:
- The polarization of our society will accelerate: Muslims will feel threatened and misunderstood, Belgians will feel scared and leery towards them. Communication, which was tenuous at best, will break down some more. I was talking to one of my students earlier this week and he told me the story of one of his Muslim friends: they are considering the possibility that they might have to flee the country if society turns against them. Helplines are also getting an increased number of calls from young Muslims who feel threatened or abused by Belgians. Nothing good will come of this.
- Demagogues, from the left, right and center, will get more attention than they deserve, their non-solutions as well. It has already started: the leader of the biggest party in Belgium went out of his way on national television to claim that we are not at war. His reasoning, which was picked up by all other panelists, was that the terrorists do not constitute a regular army because they’re not numerous enough. As a historian, he should know better than say something so monumentally stupid; asymmetric warfare is not a new phenomenon. But the illusion of control needs to be maintained to avoid the public panicking, so he’d rather lie than tell the truth.
- The media once again go out of their way to obscure the facts. We are inundated with news, interviews and talk shows in which the public is led to believe things really are not all that terrible, we should empathize with jihadists and really, it’ll all be OK. The most recent example was this popular talk show in which an expert on radicalized Islamist youth repeatedly said that people are underestimating the problem and attacks in Belgium are a matter of time, given the information he has received from those jihadists. He was ignored, cut off or told he was scaring people. Once again, political correctness is more important than tackling the problem, even if the blood in the streets hasn’t been cleaned up yet.
- The political will to change is not present. Brussels Minister-President Rudy Vervoort has already stated publicly that there is no need for police reform in his city. He even said the police is working quite well, thank you very much. At the same time, things are eerily silent on the left-wing front. They seem to understand there is blood on their hands and are keeping a low profile in the media. My bet is they’ll wait for the storm to pass and then do nothing. On the right, there is a lot of tough talk on how they’ll clean up Molenbeek. They know full well they can’t, nor can they stop every attempt to attack a target on Belgian soil. But the soundbites must be worth it to them.
- The government will sidestep and ignore our constitution, side step civil rights and implement measures that make privacy obsolete and grant them much more power than ever before. There is no other way because, as a small country, they have no other means to tackle this problem. We simply lack the security apparatus to do it effectively. But in the mean time, civilians will wake up in a very different society than the one we had before Paris.
- The Prime Minister announced his plans yesterday and the erosion of privacy has already started. He also announced 400 million Euro extra for anti-terrorist initiatives. We’ll see. Belgian governments have a habit of announcing big budget spending and then not following through. Furthermore, several of the legislative changes he proposed need that dreaded two-thirds majority in each ethnic group, which means he has to convince the opposition to work with him. Given the way the opposition has fought his administration so far, this does not bode well, especially in light of the Belgian Compromise I explained before. Chances are high his measures will eventually be watered down into futility. Finally, all the people they promise to hire to fill in the empty slots in our law enforcement agencies first have to be hired and then trained before they become functional assets. Training an NSA agent takes two years. Training a rookie cop takes five and a half months. So excuse me that I’m not impressed. Opera non verba. Let’s see them make good on their promises first. Wouldn’t be the first time they failed to do so.
- We’ve entered the next phase of an asymmetric war that has been raging for decades, but most people chose to ignore it or thought it wasn’t relevant here. Paris was a rude wake up call for them. I believe there is worse to come. Terrorists want to terrorize, they don’t need to kill everybody to do that and are more than creative enough to achieve that goal. We still haven’t had any school shootings or a Beslan scenario. We haven’t had attacks in public gatherings like markets, concerts or similar to get mass casualties. We haven’t had “next-gen” attacks like commercially available drones strapped with explosives detonated over a pubic gathering. We also haven’t had “low profile” targets attacked to drive home the message that you are never safe, not even in a small town. If nothing is done, we’ll eventually have some or all of those.
The reality is that we’re far beyond simple solutions and there is worse to come before it gets better, if it ever does. There will be more blood in the streets, it’s only a matter of time. Safety is an illusion, it was never real and some people are only finding that out now.
But life will go on.
How do you go on?
Many people contacted me to ask what they should do now. They are scared and don’t know what to think or what/who to believe. That’s understandable, but it’s not a productive way of living. I’ll give you my personal take on it, but first a short story:
My father told me how as a child, him and his friends would steal German bullets during the WWII occupation of Belgium. They’d take out the gunpowder, pour it out in a line on a windowsill and set it on fire to see it go off.
It was war, but children still played. The same will happen now.
If you stop living, the bastards win. Illegitimi non carborundum.
My kids are 13 and 15 now. This weekend, I’ll have to show them how to dive for cover when AK47 gunfire erupts, the difference between cover and concealment and how to flee to safety. I had hoped to spare them those lessons, but due to the Paris attacks and what’s coming next, I can’t postpone it any longer.
Some people think that’s an exaggeration. Some wonder if teaching them that scares them more than not doing so. We all have to make our own decisions on that front. Me, I believe they are old enough to understand you plan for the worst and hope for the best. Giving them information and tools that increase their odds of survival in case of an attack, if only a few percentage points more, is the least I can do.
My mother did the same for me.
When I was their age, terrorists did over a dozen attacks in one year in Belgium, in particular around Brussels.
I remember being scared that my father would not come home one day.
When I was their age, a gang tortured and killed for three years. Their MO was to shoot and kill without hesitation or provocation. They specifically targeted a chain of supermarkets (Delhaize), which had a store at a 30sec. walk from our house and we always shopped there.
I remember my mom telling me to duck and look for cover if the shooting started.
So will my kids.
Violence is a part of life. I don’t like it, I wish it wouldn’t exist but that’s not in the cards. All you can do is try to prepare for it and deal with it best you can.
The same goes for this terrorist threat. Life will change, but it keeps on going. My point of view is to live your life as best you can, but stay informed of what’s really going on. Take whatever reasonable precautions you can and then move on with your life. It will keep on going anyway, even if you aren’t ready for it. And one day, it will be over. Nothing you can do about that.
But you can do something about how you fill those days.
I choose to fill them as much as possible with the things that give me joy and spend as much time as I can with my loved ones.
Just like I did before the Paris attacks.
I often get asked what to read or view for information about these topics. Here are some things you might find useful, both fiction and non-fiction.
Modern Warfare. An old book on asymmetric warfare, very much relevant today and also prophetic. A harsh look at the reality of what we’re up against and a good primer if you’re new to the subject. I reviewed the book here.
Survivor Personality. Why is it that certain people are better at handling adversity than others? What skills do you need and how do you learn them to become a “survivor.” Great book.
The Gift of Fear. An introduction to fear, what it really is and how to deal with it. Another oldie.
Left of Bang. An interesting book on, among other things, awareness and how to develop it, which is more important than all the cool tactical stuff you might prefer to learn.
Meditation and Mental Rehearsal for Warriors. These are two practical, no-nonsense books by my mentor and co-author Loren W. Christensen. They teach you how to calm your mind and prepare for stressful events.
The Siege: An older movie about terrorist attacks in a city, but eerily prophetic. Pay special attention to the scene in which Bruce Willis implores the powers that be not to use his troops. Then know this: France deployed about 30.000 troops on its own territory right after the attacks. 1.500 are deployed in Paris right now and the numbers are increasing. Consider what that does to a country
Be safe and good luck.