- Frank Barat
author and activist based in Brussels, Belgium. He is president of the Palestine Legal Action Network.
- Joshua Hersh
New York-based journalist who reported from Brussels following the Paris attacks in November. He wrote a piece headlined “What They Missed: The Anti-Terror Raid That Asked All the Wrong Questions.” At the time, he was the BuzzFeed News Michael Hastings fellow.
- Yasser Louati
spokesperson for the Collective Against Islamophobia in France.
Belgium has begun three days of mourning after at least 31 people died and over 230 were injured Tuesday in bombings targeting the Brussels Airport and a crowded subway station near the headquarters of the European Union. ISIS took responsibility for the Brussels bombings and claimed more would follow. The bombings took place just days after authorities arrested Salah Abdeslam, a suspect in the November Paris attacks that killed 130 people. A massive manhunt is underway for a 24-year-old Belgium man named Najim Laachraoui, who is suspected of being involved in Tuesday’s attack as well as the Paris bombings. Over the past decade, hundreds of young Belgian men have left their home to fight with ISIS and other militant groups in the Middle East. We speak to three guests about the Brussels attack and how Belgium should respond: Frank Barat in Brussels, journalist Joshua Hersh and Yasser Louati of the the Collective Against Islamophobia in France.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Belgium has begun three days of mourning after at least 31 people died and over 230 were injured Tuesday in bombings targeting the Brussels Airport and a crowded subway station near the headquarters of the European Union. ISIS took responsibility for the Brussels bombings and claimed more would follow. The attacks took place just days after authorities arrested Salah Abdeslam, a suspect in the November Paris attacks that killed 130 people. A massive manhunt is underway for a 24-year-old Belgian man named Najim Laachraoui, who is suspected of being involved in both Tuesday’s attacks as well as the Paris bombings.
AMY GOODMAN: According to press accounts, Najim Laachraoui went to Syria in 2013. He’s believed to be one of three men seen in security camera footage at the Brussels Airport prior to the bombing. Belgian media has also reported two brothers, Khalid and Brahim el-Bakraoui, as being involved in the bombings. Both are believed to have blown themselves up in the attack.
Over the past decade, hundreds of young Belgian men have left their home to fight with ISIS and other militant groups in the Middle East. Belgium reportedly provided the most ISIS fighters per capita of all EU countries last year. The Belgian prime minister, Charles Michel, has announced the country had raised its security level to maximum.
PRIME MINISTER CHARLES MICHEL: [translated] The Coordinating Unit for Threat Analysis has decided to bring the security level to level four, which means additional safety measures, the reinforcement of border controls and limits on public transport, and a reinforcement of military presence in key sites. We are studying further measures.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: On the streets of Brussels, residents expressed grief over the bombings.
JOKI NIGS: After the past months, I believe that we have not really been prepared, but there has always been this sense of dread that something might happen. It honestly really hasn’t sank in yet for me personally, because I never really believed that something could happen here in Brussels. But yeah, it’s clearly here.
AMY GOODMAN: President Obama addressed the bombings during his trip to Cuba.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: This is just one more example of why the entire world has to unite against these terrorists. The notion that any political agenda would justify the killing of innocent people like this is something that’s beyond the pale. We are going to continue with the over 60 nations that are pounding ISIL and going to go after them.
AMY GOODMAN: We begin today’s show in Brussels, Belgium, where we’re joined by Frank Barat, author and activist.
You’re in Brussels right now. Can you talk about this last 24 hours, what has happened and the response to it, Frank?
FRANK BARAT: Good morning, Amy. Good morning, Juan.
First, as an update for you—for you guys, there were reports this morning that Laachraoui, the major suspect, one of the major suspects in these attacks, has been arrested in the suburb of Anderlecht. So it’s not confirmed yet, but there were some reports saying that he had been arrested.
The last 24 hours have been a sort of a blur, I guess. You know, when those type of things happen, it’s very hard to make sense of it all. And I think as much as Belgians and the government and the police maybe expected something to happen, the scale of what happened was totally unexpected, so people were left in shock. And in a way, the response of the politicians and the police forces, etc., took a while to arrive, because I think it was a sort of a big shock for everybody.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And what is life like right now in Brussels after the attacks, in terms of the situation locally with the schools and other businesses?
FRANK BARAT: OK, I mean, the schools and the businesses and stuff were closed after Paris, so after November and the Bataclan attacks. Brussels was in a sort of total lockdown, with everything pretty much closed, including public transport. It’s different now. Schools are open today. Nurseries are open. A few businesses are open, not all of them. We’re here near, actually, the European—we’re in the European Quarter, very close to where the bomb of the suicide bomber happened in Maelbeek, so there’s lots of police, lots of journalists, as well, lots of cameras and press. There was like a minute of silence before, sort of about 200 yards away from where I am now. So, yeah, lots of police, lots of, you know, military personnel in the streets. A few roads are closed. A few shops are opened. But, you know, I think it’s—people are trying to, as much as they can, live a normal life, even if everybody is talking about what happened yesterday. I was in a taxi before; we talked about it. I went to a shop this morning; we talked about it. So, everybody, even at school this morning, my kids’ school, people were talking about it. So people are in shock still.
AMY GOODMAN: So, the significance of this subway station, Maelbeek, which is right next to the European Union and down the road from the European Parliament, can you talk about that and also the attacks coming as Salah Abdeslam was arrested a few days ago, and someone killed and others rounded up, and what you think is happening here, Frank?
FRANK BARAT: It’s very hard to sort of make any sort of conclusions now, because we don’t have a lot of the facts. What we know is that Paris—the Paris attacks and the Brussels attacks are linked. It’s now been established.
And what we know for sure is that two of the most major hub of life in Brussels and of political life in Brussels, the national airport and the European Quarter, have been attacked. And I guess these targets, these two targets, you know, are a terrorist sort of wish list, on top of a terrorist wish list. You know, the airport is a symbol of internationalism, symbol of Europe, symbol of many nationalities being there. And the European Quarter, of course, is the symbol of the European Union and the European Commission and the rest. So the targets chosen were very powerful, and hence the situation here, hence the fact that even the police and the army, at least from the reports that we heard yesterday, felt completely lost.
But now, I mean, the question is—we have to try to explain how this happened. You know, we’ve had in Brussels security and military personnel in the streets since Charlie Hebdo, so since January 2015, so for more than a year now. Military is all over the place, police. We are on the highest level of security alert. And despite all this, two, again, of the sort of biggest targets have been hit yesterday. So, a lot of questions need to be asked and answered, hopefully.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Frank, one of the points that you’ve made is that you believe that a lot of the radicalization of Muslim youth in Belgium is occurring not through the mosques or through trips to Syria, but through stints in prisons in Belgium. Could you talk about that?
FRANK BARAT: I mean, it’s—I don’t want to generalize, of course, and it’s a mix, a mixture of a lot of things. But if you see—I mean, when I was talking about jails and prison, it’s—the people that did the attacks in Paris, Coulibaly and the two brothers, had spent years in jail, together, actually, in the same jail. They met there. They were radicalized through jail and radicalized also through the people they met—that they met in jail, including a radical Islamist preacher. But it’s a mixture of things. But what we see—and the families have often talked about it—is that they were—you know, they came to jail as maybe small-time delinquents, and they came out completely transformed and radicalized. So sometimes this happened in a couple of years. The family just couldn’t sort of recognize their sons after that. So it’s—obviously, there’s a lot more to it than this, and, you know, radical Islam is also a factor. But we’re talking about sort of a disenfranchised youth in Paris and in Brussels, that is therefore left opened to being led into such a such path by people that actually maybe offer them something that they have never been offered before by sort of society and their peers.
AMY GOODMAN: Frank Barat, you are coordinator of the Russell Tribunal on Palestine—that’s Bertrand Russell—and president of the Palestine Legal Action Network. Can you talk about what political ideology is espoused by these young men and what you think is important to bring out?
FRANK BARAT: I mean, what’s important to bring out, I mean, in a way, we have to look at it—we’ve got two options, right? We either continue the status quo, we continue and we follow what sort of our so-called leaders are saying this morning and have been saying for—since even before, but since September the 11th—you know, those people hate our freedoms, they hate our culture, they do not like life the way we do, and they are waiting to go to paradise to meet whatever how many virgins—so we either do this and continue the sort an-eye-for-an-eye, tooth-for-a-tooth war and more sort of revenge-type of things that have led to nothing but more terrorism on the ground—I mean, the end of al-Qaeda and the killing of bin Laden was celebrated, but it only created something even more powerful in ISIS—so, we either do this and we follow sort of a maybe Fox News analogy or Donald Trump analogy, or we decide to stop and start to ask the tough questions and the questions that need to be answered.
We need to—I mean, as an example, in Norway, a country, actually, that most Trump supporters probably don’t know exist, we—after the attacks of Anders Breivik in 2011, which killed more than 70 people, the prime minister of Norway said that Norway’s response to terror would be more openness, greater political participation and more democracy. It’s words we don’t hear nowadays. You know, there’s been—the prime minister of Belgium has announced more security in the streets, more security at airports. So it’s either, you know, they don’t want to look at the real problem, and they don’t want to face their role in it and their responsibility in it, or they’re simply lying. So now the civil society has to be clear that we need answers from them.
And we need to look—I mean, those young Muslims and others, actually, that were radicalized, it didn’t come out of nowhere, right? It came out of radicalization through what’s happening in Syria, which is actually key to understand the creation of ISIS. Syria and what’s happened in Syria in the last few years is a betrayal, a total betrayal, in part of the Western world. You know, people rising to fight its oppressor and the West sort of turning its back on them, allowing slaughter, this created so much anger, so much rancor. And when you put this on top of the failure of U.S. foreign policy and U.S. imperialism, when you put this on top the sort of ambitions of the West in terms of oil, in terms of trade routes and in terms of supporting dictators and Israel, you know, it creates a powerful and very dangerous mixture that then manifests in the form of ISIS or al-Qaeda or any other terrorist organizations. So we have to ask the tough questions. And we need answers.
AMY GOODMAN: Frank, we’re going to break.
FRANK BARAT: We don’t need more blood. We don’t need more wars. But, unfortunately, this—yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break, and then we’re going to come back to this discussion.
FRANK BARAT: OK.
AMY GOODMAN: Frank Barat is an author and activist based in Brussels, Belgium. He is president of the Palestine Legal Action Network. And we’ll be broadening out the discussion with Joshua Hersh, who is a journalist who reported from Brussels following the Paris attacks in November, wrote a piece headlined “What They Missed: The Anti-Terror Raid That Asked All the Wrong Questions.” We’ll also be joined by Yasser Louati, a French-Arab spokesperson for the International Relations Desk of the Collective Against Islamophobia in France. Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: The instrumental to “Butter” by A Tribe Called Quest. It was announced today that one of its main rappers, Phife Dawg, passed away at the age of 45. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.
We have a roundtable to talk about what’s happening in Brussels, Belgium. Here in New York, we’re joined by Joshua Hersh, who is—who reported from Brussels following the Paris attacks in November, wrote a piece headlined “What They Missed: The Anti-Terror Raid That Asked All the Wrong Questions.” At the time, he was the BuzzFeed News Michael Hastings fellow.
Well, what did they miss?
JOSHUA HERSH: Well, that was a particular story about a raid that took place in a town in eastern Belgium in January of last year, and it was right in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attacks. And so, it didn’t really get a lot of attention at the time. But what I did is I went back and looked at it, and I noticed that the description of it, the reporting on it, the way that the prosecutor talked about it fit with the pattern that we tend to hear about these raids: Somebody who’s a psychopath of some sort, who goes to Syria, who returns back to Brussels, he’s a very Islamist radical, and he wants to blow himself up and kill everyone. And that made some sense, but there was a third guy in that house. And they grouped him together in that category, but he didn’t really fit there. He seemed to be someone who had—he had never gone to Syria. Everyone I met said he wasn’t radicalized at all. Some people said he may have had no idea what he was doing there. But I think, more likely—
AMY GOODMAN: And this was which raid?
JOSHUA HERSH: This was a raid in a town called Verviers where they killed everyone except him. And this guy jumped out the window, and the prosecutor conceded that he didn’t seem prepared to die like the other two.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And they killed everyone in a fierce firefight, right?.
JOSHUA HERSH: A really—I mean, and you may have heard about the firefight in Saint-Denis after the attacks in Paris. It was exactly the same thing. I mean, it was a many-minutes-long battle.
AMY GOODMAN: But this was after Charlie Hebdo.
JOSHUA HERSH: This is after Charlie Hebdo, so it was much earlier. And what I realize is that people like this guy seem to exist—they come up all the time in these attacks. They’re people who play kind of smaller support roles, who have connections to the people who we think of as the terrorists, through childhood, through growing up in the neighborhoods together, through pretty criminality, but they aren’t terrorists in the way we think of it. And if we realize that actually those are the people we need to focus on, it helps us to understand that the foundation for the terrorism structure that exists in cities like Brussels and in Paris of people who are going abroad and coming back, it may be much more mundane than the sort of high rhetoric we hear about people trying to defeat democracy and they hate our freedoms and things like that. It’s actually people who exist within a sort of lower spectrum of local grievances and criminality and things that actually are maybe easier to deal with, but also more complicated to try to understand.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And this neighborhood of Molenbeek that we’ve heard so much about now in recent months, it’s quite distinct from other Arab or Muslim neighborhoods in Europe in that it’s right in the center of Brussels, isn’t it?
JOSHUA HERSH: Yeah, it is, geographically. It’s just two metro stops away from the central station, which was striking to me, because I’m used to thinking of the suburbs in Paris, which are really isolated geographically. Molenbeek is right in the middle of the city, more or less. But it’s still really isolated, and the people who grow up there will tell you that they feel like they can’t really access other parts of the city. The other parts of the city feel like a foreign land to them. They can’t get apartments there. They can’t really get jobs in other places. And so, they’ll—I spoke to one young man who lived there, who told me—he said, “People always say that we refuse to leave, we refuse to integrate.” He said, “That’s not the case. We’re not allowed to integrate. We’re not allowed to go elsewhere.”
AMY GOODMAN: Explain what he meant. This is Mohamed?
JOSHUA HERSH: This is Mohamed, yeah. And he was, I think, characteristic of some of the people. Mohamed was in the piece I wrote. And he was describing how, among other things, for example—this is a young man who’s very well educated. He’s very smart. He’s studying at one of the higher colleges in the city and actually was able, through his education, to get out. He’s, I think, the only nonwhite Belgian in his school. And he still feels like he can never really be Belgian when he’s at school. He had a job. It was working in a department store. And he told me that it was the best job he could get—I mean, he tried for years to get another job—despite his education, and he speaks English, speaks French. And at this job, he was responsible for folding clothes and cleaning up, and the people he worked with refused to learn his name. They would just call him “worker.” And this was a daily reflection of what—how distant he was always going to be from society.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, I wanted to take that a little further. What is it, from what you’ve been able to see in terms of the particular social and political realities of Belgium, that has made it such a hotbed for the development of radicalized Muslim fighters now?
JOSHUA HERSH: Well, it’s hard to say. I mean, Belgium—one of the things that happens in Western Europe that we don’t deal with quite as much here in the U.S., although we have all—we have our faults, but integration is really hard to pull off in some of these countries in the Western—in Western Europe. And it has to do with a very strong sense of identity that these countries bring to the table. So when you arrive from North Africa or when you’re the child or grandchild of people who arrive from North Africa, which is really more often the case, you find yourself butting up against this reality, that you just can’t be considered Belgian. It happens in France. It’s going to happen quite a lot, I think, in Germany. And that creates a real tension, and it creates a sense of the ceiling of opportunity for you is rather low.
And I think that that ultimately got exploited by people. I mean, you know, we have to remember, early in the war in Syria, many, many people were going off to Syria to fight, and it was before ISIS. It wasn’t about radicalization. It wasn’t—it was actually, I think, to some extent, welcomed by the Belgian government, which, by its policy, supported the rebels against Assad. It was welcomed by the French government. They sort of turned a blind eye. So you had a huge number of people going rather freely, and that created an opening for people who wanted to exploit it.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to bring Yasser Louati into this conversation, who’s a spokesman for the Collective Against Islamophobia in France. Talk about your response to what just took place—we had you on after the attacks of November in France—and your response to what’s happened over these last months, particularly to the Arab community of France.
YASSER LOUATI: Hi, Amy. It’s again a feeling of déjà vu. I’ve been following the news with the Brussels attacks, and it is the exact same feeling—shock and horror, people crying, people dead, and then we have politicians, you know, trying to advance their agenda on the bodies of our victims. And again, now, we have—we are facing the same problem, and we still refuse to address the question: Why do these things keep happening? What would make someone hate his or her country so much to the point of acting on behalf of a foreign terrorist organization?
So now the feeling is that the governments—I mean, like, I can speak for the French government, especially—four months after the November attacks, is not doing what should be done in addressing the root causes of terrorism. And every single guest, you know, on your program that spoke before me spoke about them. As long as you have foreign domination, imperialistic wars, social injustice, exclusion, strong identity against the minorities, etc., you will definitely push one of the weakest elements in the hands of these terrorist groups. And you don’t need a thousand of them; one or two are enough. And Brussels was just a plain demonstration of it.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And in terms of what you expect now, considering what happened after the attacks in Paris in terms of dragnets and raids in the Muslim community, what’s your fears?
YASSER LOUATI: We hope the Belgian government will not act like the French government did, meaning brutality against the Muslim population and holding it responsible, directly or indirectly, for what happened. So far, the Belgian government is sending positive signals, and we hope that it won’t go down the path of said brutality against minorities. To give you a clear example of the French failures in the aftermath of the November 13th attacks, so far, after four months, 3,400 raids have been carried against homes, mosques, Muslim restaurants, etc., in total brutality, with a willingness to humiliate people. In the end, only four or five inquiries have been opened against—on the terror charges. This means that for four months you have been terrorizing innocent people and holding them accountable for your own failures. So I hope the Belgian government will look at the French failures and take another path, meaning that—you know, showing more solidarity, more unity in the face of a common threat.