The March 22 attacks in Brussels were carried out by a pair of brothers who detonated suicide bombs, according to Belgian officials. While authorities hunt for at least one other participant in the attacks, the toll from the assaults stands at 31 dead and 270 injured.
Le Sueur, a UNL professor of history, has interviewed jihadists in Belgium as part of his study of radical Islam, terrorism and decolonization, particularly in Algeria. He is working on a documentary and book about the war on terror and radical Islam.
Hillebrecht, an assistant professor of political science, is an expert in human rights, international relations and international law.
Historic and demographic factors helped make Belgium a target, Le Sueur said.
Belgium is one of Europe’s more receptive countries toward immigrants and political refugees, Le Sueur said. A significant portion of its immigrant population are political refugees and asylum-seekers. Its population includes many second- or third-generation immigrants.
“ISIS recruits within those immigrant communities,” said Le Sueur, who has interviewed those threatened by radical Islamists, those with political asylum and suspected terrorists. “There are a lot of illegal arms dealers in Belgium; many Jihad biographies point out that arms dealers are a significant part of the criminal population.”
Increasing terrorism-related activity along the Brussels-Paris corridor has long been a concern, Hillebrecht said.
“This is not the first instance of terrorism or terrorism-related activity in Brussels over the past few years,” she said. “Operatives in Brussels helped to facilitate the Charlie Hebdo and November 2015 Paris attacks and the 2014 attack on The Jewish Museum of Belgium,” she said.
Belgium has one of the highest rates of nationals leaving Europe to fight along ISIS and other Islamic extremist groups, Hillebrecht said. Many attribute this to a particularly influential leader of Sharia4Belgium, a radical Islamic group that recruited young people to fight in Syria.
Some experts also say low employment and social exclusion have contributed to the radicalization of Muslims in Belgium, Hillebrecht added.
Belgium has been slower to adopt the security measures taken by other European nations in the wake of the 2001 attacks in the United States.
“It has porous borders – these kinds of criminals can get from one country to another,” Le Sueur said. “It hasn’t had the same kind of Islamist movements and it doesn’t have the police infrastructure of Germany, France and the UK to track extremists.
“ISIS tends to attack countries that have operations abroad. It sees through the lens of who’s attacking them and they attack their attackers,” he said. “France has been one of the main European nations to do so.”
In addition, ISIS thrives on media attention, both as a source of intelligence and to publicize their cause, Le Sueur said. Belgium has called for a media blackout in the wake of the March 22 attacks. But that does not mean Belgium can expect to escape future terrorist strikes.
“This is the new reality of Europe,” Le Sueur said, noting that Belgium is the headquarters for the European Union as well as the home for other international organizations.
The Brussels attack is rooted in a number of factors, Hillebrecht said.
Belgian authorities earlier this month arrested Salah Abdeslam, a suspect in the November strikes in Paris that left 130 dead. Belgian authorities seem to have been anticipating some sort of reprisal at least since their hunt for the Paris suspects began.
“The loss of life in the Brussels attack, as with the attacks that came before it, is appalling and tragic,” Hillebrecht said. “That said, this attack does not alter much in terms of national or international security. Instead, it points to three major, ongoing challenges.
“First, it highlights the problem of ‘home-grown’ terrorist threats in Europe and the radicalization that is taking place within the EU.
“Second, it reemphasizes ISIS’s growing reach and callous methods – consider, too, the recent attacks in Turkey.
“Third, it accentuates the already tense environment within European states, as policymakers and the public reckon with a nearly unprecedented number of refugees entering the Eurozone and the rise of right-wing parties in response.”