The Paris attacks were carried out by a team that included Belgian nationals and residents. Belgium has a sizable Muslim population—roughly on par with that of other Northern European countries—but by some tallies has sent more fighters to join ISIS per capita than any other country in Europe. In Brussels’s Molenbeek neighborhood, the epicenter of Belgian jihadism, there’s high unemployment, an isolated Muslim population, poor education, and a lack of government services.
These problems were not unknown before the Paris attacks. Belgium has grappled with Islamist terrorism since as far back as the 1980s, and various observers had voiced concerns about jihadism in Molenbeek and lack of policing prior to last November. In January 2015, for example, following attacks on Paris offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, Belgian authorities launched a series of terrorism-related raids, sweeping up suspects. “The Belgian police may claim today to have ‘averted a Belgian Charlie Hebdo,’ but it’s clear that the country’s radicalization problem is much larger, and will take more than police raids to address,” Slate’s Joshua Keating warned at the time.
After the Paris attacks of November 13, Belgium further stepped up its counterterrorism efforts, with police launching raids in Molenbeek in the days immediately afterward. “You have a very high concentration in Molenbeek and that could well be the essence of the story,” said Interior Minister Jan Jambon at the time. “Moreover, local authorities have been rather lax in this respect for many years.”
From November 21 to 25, the enforcement expanded to the entirety of the city, with the capital effectively on lockdown. Schools and public transit closed. NATO and the European Union, both of which are based in Brussels, found their operations disrupted. A reported 1,000 officers combed the city in search of Salah Abdeslam, a suspect in the Paris attacks. But the dragnet failed to ensnare Abdeslam, who would not be caught until March 18.
After that, officials eased up a bit on the visible enforcement. Local tourist authorities launched campaigns to convince would-be visitors that the capital was still safe and vibrant. At the same time, behind the scenes, Belgium was playing catch-up. The government worked to beef up its intelligence services, adding personnel and cash. The state’s intelligence community is believed to be smaller than those of its neighbors, accounting for size, despite the large jihadist problem, Reuters reported.
Some analysts blamed the overstretched capabilities of Belgian counterterrorism officials for not catching and disrupting the Paris plot, even though many of the attackers were known to be linked to terrorism and had had scrapes with the law before last November. Then, in the wake of the November lockdown, Belgian authorities “made a series of seemingly contradictory announcements about the security situation,” The Guardian reports. “Belgian security services appeared—despite the quality of many individual officials‚ overwhelmed. It was revealed that a few hundred agents were supposed to watch over thousands of potential militants. ‘We are simply exhausted,’ one senior security official said in an email.” Belgian security officials told BuzzFeed’s Mitchell Prothero that practically every possible detective and investigator in the country was detailed to investigating jihad.