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What to Do About Brussels

Going to war won't solve Europe's homegrown terrorism problem.

Emmanuel Dunand/Getty Images

Late on the night of November 13, 2015, Salah Abdeslam stood alone on an empty street corner in Montrouge, a suburb in the south of Paris, frantically calling home. A few miles away, nine of his friends and accomplices, including his brother, Brahim, had recently finished firing assault rifles into throngs of innocent civilians, and blowing themselves up at restaurants and a concert hall. But Abdeslam, a 26-year-old native of Brussels, hadn’t gone through with his part of the plot. Instead, he discarded his suicide vest in a trash heap, and, using a fresh SIM card, begged a friend to come pick him up.

The two men who arrived a few hours later—Mohammed Amri, 27, and Hamza Attou, 21—were surprised, they would later claim, by what they encountered. Abdeslam seemed anxious and sullen, and he spoke few words as they drove him the 200 miles across the border into Belgium, dropping him off in the early hours of November 14 at a metro station in the Brussels neighborhood of Laeken. He offered no hint of what had occurred just hours earlier. Later that day, during police sweeps of the neighborhood, Amri and Attou were arrested. They told authorities they’d had no idea about the plot and no clue where Abdeslam could be found.

In the terror attacks that have ripped across Western Europe in recent years, a certain menacing figure has cropped up time and again: the violent Islamic extremist, often of North African origin, who spent time with the Islamic State in Syria and returned home bent on wreaking havoc on his European homeland. These are the hallmarks of the modern terrorist, of the murderous suicide bombers who blew themselves up outside a soccer stadium and restaurants in Paris. This figure is likely to emerge again, in the investigation of those who, most recently, detonated their charges inside the main international airport and a metro station in Brussels.

But when I spent time late last year in Molenbeek—the neighborhood of Brussels where many of these homegrown terrorists grew up and lived, and where Abdeslam was finally captured last week after four months on the run—I kept hearing about the two men who drove through the night to ferry Abdeslam back from Paris.

“That could have been me,” a young resident told me one day, rather nonchalantly. It was a cool evening a few weeks after the Paris attacks, and the tension that had descended over Molenbeek—brought on by the oppressive presence of heavily armed police and camera-laden reporters—was beginning to lift. The resident, who I agreed not to name in my reporting, didn’t mean that he literally could have been the one who drove home Abdeslam that night—he was not friendly with the wanted terrorist. But he could relate to the situation the drivers found themselves in. Growing up in the neighborhood, he too had had his run-ins with the law, in his capacity as a drug courier and car thief. He could easily picture a time when he might have received a call in the middle of the night from someone like Abdeslam—who was known in the community primarily as a drug hustler and bartender—and told to drive out and pick him up, no questions asked. Amri and Attou, their lawyers told me, had never been to Syria, and were not radicalized—they were, it seems, just petty criminals. People like that, the resident said, were everywhere to be found.

“That’s how it works in the neighborhoods,” Delphine Paci, a defense attorney in Brussels, told me later. “These are people from small delinquencies in the neighborhoods who will help the big boss without always knowing what they are doing, or that they are helping terrorists.” (I quoted her to this effect in an article that was published in December by BuzzFeed News.)

In the aftermath of Tuesday’s attacks, this is worth keeping in mind. The homegrown terrorist threat in Belgium, as well as in France, is no doubt driven by the craven machinations of the powerful and well-funded Islamic State. Its key operators are the psychopaths who fit the standard profile of a religiously motivated zealot: homicidal, suicidal, nihilistic.

But for every one of these people, there are many more who play crucial roles along the way in a kind of terrorism gray area. These are often people who share few or none of these radical qualities. They never went to Syria. They have no abiding relationship with Islam. Their only evident qualifications are their capacity for drinking and drug use, their ability to acquire illicit goods, and their indifference to the law and those who might enforce it. They are radical, one might say, but not necessarily radicalized. 

Look closely and, again and again, there they are. The suspected weapons trafficker who met with the wife of Amedy Coulibaly, shortly before Coulibaly shot up a kosher supermarket in Paris following the attacks on the offices of Charlie Hebdo—but the alleged trafficker was later cleared of any direct involvement. The “old friend” of the Charlie Hebdo ring who suspiciously turned up at a house in eastern Belgium hours before it was raided by counter-terrorism police last January—then jumped out a window to escape being killed rather than joining the others in fighting to the death. The two men—Amri and Attou—who drove Abdeslam to the metro station in Belgium that night in November; the third man who picked him up from there and took him on to a cafe.

It should be clear by now that the terrorism problem in a place like Belgium ought to be viewed as the extension of criminal networks, not ones solely related to ISIS. The lawyers who defend people accused of terrorism plots are not experts in international law—they are the same criminal attorneys who defended their clients years earlier on charges of drug dealing or petty theft. The local journalists who have the best sources on the investigations are not those who cover intelligence matters—they are the ones who cover the courts.

For those familiar with these suspects, the answer to the scourge of homegrown terrorism in Europe is not to be found in more abstract notions of defeating radical jihadist ideology, or in militarized responses. It is to be found in the basic tools of routine police work: learning the ins and outs of a tightly knit neighborhood where dozens of people could lend support to a plot, and only a few of whom would know, or care, that it was terrorism.

So far, that has not been the preferred response from top officials and politicians. French President Francois Hollande on Tuesday reiterated what he proclaimed after the November attacks—that Europe is “at war” with terrorism. In the U.S., the Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump suggested that torturing Abdeslam might have prevented the attack, while his chief opponent, Ted Cruz, called for police in America to “secure and patrol” Muslim neighborhoods. In response to the November Paris attacks, France launched strikes against ISIS targets in Syria, and security forces there and in Belgium engaged in dramatic shootouts with suspects. Troubled neighborhoods in both countries were put on lockdown and given the war zone treatment. But “going to war” didn’t solve the problem, and it never will. A holistic approach is necessary for restive areas like Molenbeek, where only police work and some hope of economic advancement will help reduce the appeal of criminality, as well as its more dangerous cousin. 

Salah Abdeslam may have been one of those hardened terrorists, bent on suicide until his vest malfunctioned. Or he may instead have been one of those gray-area guys. Like Amri and Attou, he had never gone to Syria, and no one I met in Molenbeek recalled him as being particularly devout or ideological. But he came to know the other plotters through the seedy bar he ran with his brother, and through his previous stints in prison. On that night in Paris, it’s quite possible that he suddenly realized the depth of what he’d gotten himself into, recoiled at the brutality of the violence around him, and bailed.