Brussels, the capital of Belgium but also of the European Union and of NATO, is not prepared for a terrorist attack. After a warning by the chief of the Brussels fire brigade that his men would never be able to cope with an attack on more than one underground station, Véronique Paulus de Châtelet, the Governor of Brussels, confirmed on Tuesday that Brussels does not have an emergency plan in case of an attack by al-Qaeda or other likeminded criminal organisations.
Brussels, however, seems confident that it will not be attacked. For years the Belgian authorities have pursued a policy of turning a blind eye to extremist groups in return for their implicit agreement not to target Belgium. Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt recently indicated that, given Belgium’s conduct in foreign policy, it is unlikely to become a terror target. Willy Claes, a former Belgian Vice Prime Minister and former Secretary General of NATO, thinks that the fact that Brussels houses the seats of the EU and NATO makes it a likely target of al-Qaeda. A recent poll indicated, however, that many Belgians are convinced that the terrorists will behave rationally and leave Belgium alone.
In 1996, Charles Pasqua, the French Minister of the Interior at the time, accused Belgium of lacking the resolve to fight international Islamic terrorism. The accusation followed the release in Brussels of twelve members of the Algerian terror group GIA, the Algerian branch of al-Qaeda. France had been a main target of GIA attacks, including the bombing of the Saint-Michel Metro station in Paris on 25 July 1995 where seven people were killed and 117 wounded. At the time the Belgian government had made a deal with the GIA terrorists, agreeing to turn a blind eye to conspiracies hatched on Belgian soil in exchange for immunity from attack. In a GIA statement addressing the Belgian King Albert II but posted to the French embassy in Brussels in June 1999, the Algerian terror movement explicitly referred to such a deal. Because of its “neutralist” position, Belgium became known as a safe haven for terrorists.
In June 2002, Mrs. Godelieve Timmermans, the head of the Belgian secret service, resigned after an investigation by a parliamentary commission concluded that the secret service had remained passive towards Islamist fundamentalists because it had found no indications that the terrorists would attack Belgian targets. The investigation followed the murder of the Afghan general Ahmad Shah Massoud. The charismatic leader of the anti-Taliban forces in Afghanistan was killed by a Belgian and an accomplice carrying Belgian papers on 9 September 2001, two days before the attacks by al-Qaeda on New York and the Pentagon. The murder, intended to be “a gift” to Osama bin Laden, had been planned by Tarek Maaroufi, a Tunisian-born Belgian citizen and one of the leading al-Qaeda agents in Europe.
Earlier, in January 2001, the CIA and the Italian anti-terror squad had discovered a plot by a Milanese al-Qaeda cell to bomb the US embassy in Rome. The Milanese cell had been in regular contact with Maaroufi. When, however, the Italian authorities asked the Belgian authorities to arrest and extradite Maaroufi, Brussels refused, arguing that it did not extradite Belgian citizens. A Brussels court convicted Maaroufi in June 2004 to a prison sentence of seven years for his part in the Massoud murder. In September 2004 he was sentenced to five years for being al-Qaeda’s European liason officer, but the court decided to include these five years in the seven years he had received earlier.
The 2002 inquiry of the Belgian parliamentary commission revealed that the Belgian authorities had allowed the Belgian Muslim community – numbering over 350,000 members, including more than 200,000 Moroccans, almost 100,000 Turks and 13,000 Algerians – to become heavily infiltrated by fundamentalist extremists. Upon resigning as head of the secret service Mrs. Timmermans indicated that she had been powerless to do anything about the spread of Islamic fundamentalism because the secret service had been understaffed and had not been given adequate funding.
Koen Dassen, Timmermans’s successor, complained yesterday that the OCMW, the Socialist-run welfare office of the city of Antwerp, is refusing to give the secret service the names of supposedly “underprivileged” Pakistani immigrants, asylum seekers and fugitives who have received OCMW funds to pay for frequent (i.e. more than once a year) “family visits” to Pakistan and/or Afghanistan. A secret service spokesman told the newspaper De Tijd today: “We have to go to court if we want the names of people on welfare who make frequent OCMW-funded journeys to Pakistan and Afghanistan. The OCMW has always refused to reveal their identities. And we have still not been given the names.”