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Expert: Brussels attack shows Belgian approach to extremism 'has back-fired'

Hooded Belgian police officers patrol outside the Gare du Midi train station in Brussels, Tuesday, March 22, 2016. Explosions, at least one likely caused by a suicide bomber, rocked the Brussels airport and its subway system Tuesday, prompting a lockdown of the Belgian capital and heightened security across Europe. (AP Photo/Michel Spingler)

Terrorist attacks in Brussels Tuesday, days after a suspect in the November Paris terror attacks was arrested there, underscored the challenge the small country of Belgium faces in confronting Islamic extremism within its borders.

Sinclair correspondent Scott Thuman reported from Brussels in December that the number of Belgian Muslims who have traveled to the Middle East to fight alongside ISIS is "staggering," the most per capita of any European nation.


"Part of it is because you see such a large representation of other nations in such a small area," he said of Brussels. The city and its suburbs have a large Muslim community that has not been assimilated and has grown disaffected. Unemployment is high among the younger population that serves as a prime target for terrorist recruitment.

CNN reported that about 500 people have left Belgium for Iraq and Syria since 2012 and more than 100 are believed to have returned to Belgium from ISIS-controlled territory. ISIS has claimed responsibility for Tuesday's attacks, according to a post by the group's Amaq news agency.

Seamus Hughes, deputy director of the Program on Extremism at George Washington University, observed that the hundreds of people who have gone to fight with ISIS likely have a broader web of friends and associates in Belgium who share their beliefs.

"There's a level of acceptance for islamist ideology in certain areas," he said of the country.

Given the police raids recently and the arrest of Paris suspect Salah Abdeslam, Hughes was not surprised to see terrorists target Brussels. He said it is clear that a terrorist network has developed there in recent years and law enforcement agencies there appear to be overwhelmed.

"Everyone's trying to play catch up," Hughes said.

According to Max Abrahms, a professor of political science at Northeastern University, the Brussels attacks provide evidence that ISIS operatives are often driven by opportunism more than political grievances.

"Terrorists tend to cluster and mount operations in areas that facilitate terrorism, where conditions are advantageous for waging terrorism," he said.

Abrahms alleged that Belgian authorities have allowed jihadism to thrive and let some areas become "no-go areas of radical Islamic behavior." Terrorist groups like ISIS seek such "areas of weak government control," he said, which is why ISIS has also sought to expand to Libya and Afghanistan.

"This hands-off strategy has backfired" on Belgium and, because of its proximity to other countries, on Europe in general, Abrahms said.

The Paris terror attacks are believed to have been planned in Belgium, and the surviving suspects fled there in the aftermath. Abdeslam was arrested in Brussels on Friday after days of raids by heavily armed police. Authorities have said suspects in many recent European terrorist attacks have ties to the Molenbeek district, which has a particularly large Muslim community.

"We were not prepared for the global world and all the consequences of the globalization and meaning also that some terrorists may enter Belgium we were not prepared for that," Johan Leman, president of Foyer Regional Integration Centre, told Thuman in December.

Abrahms noted that authorities warned of potential attacks after Abdeslam's arrest. Following such an arrest, terrorists may be more motivated to "communicate to the world that the group, despite its recent loss, can inflict pain."

According to Anthony Roman, a counterterrorism analyst and CEO of Roman & Associates, authorities are aware of the threat posed by extremism within the Brussels Muslim community but have faced obstacles in trying to contain it.

"The primary reason is that the Molenbeek quarter is highly radicalized, highly insular, and very difficult for intelligence agencies to penetrate as a result," he said.

He faulted European intelligence agencies for failing to effectively coordinate efforts and share resources even in the wake of the Paris attacks.

Belgian authorities feared an attack was imminent, "but wasn't able to develop sufficient intelligence to prevent it," he said, citing government sources.

Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel has told reporters that Abdeslam said his terrorist network was planning new attacks when he was arrested.

Prior to Tuesday's attacks, Global Risk Insights reported that Abdeslam's capture, as well as his evasion of authorities for months, demonstrated "the vast network of Islamist radicals in Brussels" and their ability to move freely in the city. Extremists also appear to be obtaining some support from within the local community.

"Molenbeek is a pit stop for radicals and criminals of all sorts," Bilal Benyaich of the Itinera Institute, a Brussels-based think tank, told Reuters in November. "It's a place where you can disappear."

"Our policy makers did not pay a lot of attention to this problem," Benyaich explained in an interview with ABC News at the time. "They didn't address the problem when it was still manageable."

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