- - Monday, March 28, 2016

It’s terribly sad, but true. The slaughter in Brussels isn’t a surprise. It didn’t sneak up on anyone, undetected, and erupt suddenly, without warning. The perverse ideology that produced the mass killings has been festering there for years for all to see, feeding on itself, gathering its strength, and striking out periodically at innocent civilians. The warning bells have been clanging about Belgium, but Belgian politicians, both Flemish and French, have been too busy bickering with each other to take notice, until now. It’s the funeral bells that may have got their attention.

Molenbeek, a working class district, on the northwest edge of Brussels, home to about 95,000 people, has been a rat’s nest of Islamist radicalism for at least two decades. It is one of Europe’s “no go” zones, a Muslim enclave, unassimilated, where the government’s writ is worthless unless enforced with massive force. On a per capita basis, Molenbeek contributes more jihadi foreign fighters to Syria and Iraq by far than any other place in Europe. By July 2015, about 120 of them had returned from the fight, many to Molenbeek. What did Belgium’s politicians think these battle-hardened fighters were up to?

In 2001, the district’s denizens were connected to the assassination of anti-Taliban leader Ahmad Shah Massoud. One of them participated in the Madrid train bombing in 2004. The violence went local in May 2014, when Islamist gunmen killed four people at a Jewish Museum in Brussels. In January 2015, Molenbeek produced the Charlie Hebdo attacks, and a disrupted plot to kill Belgian police officers. In August 2015, three Americans thwarted one of its killers on the train from Amsterdam to Paris. In November 2015, Molenbeek Islamists killed and wounded 498 innocent civilians in Paris. Now well over 300 people, and counting, have been killed and injured in Brussels.

The Belgian government’s failure to address this growing threat is infuriating. Prime Minister Charles Michel said after the Paris attacks: “I notice that each time there is a link with Molenbeek. We’ve tried prevention. Now we’ll have to get repressive. It’s been a form of laissez faire and laxity. Now we’re paying the bill.” It’s a remarkable admission by a leader forced by the dead and wounded to pay attention to the cancer in his country. Parisians can have been forgiven if they grumbled that when Mr. Michel noticed the problem, his country wasn’t paying the bill, they were.

Now with more than 300 of their own citizens dead or injured, Belgium’s leaders have swung into action, grand pronouncements, police cars with blue lights flashing, soldiers in full combat gear patrolling the streets, all to reassure a frightened people their leaders are on top of it. The response is as predictable as the attack, politicians scrambling to avoid opprobrium, justly deserved, for their negligence and incompetence.

The aggressive police operations currently underway look like a dragnet, their purpose to stop another attack by arresting anyone suspicious, leaving it for someone else to sort out later. It’s about the best the police can do, because they lack the resources to sustain a long-term, focused counterterrorism effort. It’s another product of the government’s indifference. The Belgium’s State Security Service former director, Alan Winants, said after the Paris attacks that he’d been pleading with government leaders for three years to give him the money he needed to meet the Islamist threat. Their response each time was more cuts to his budget.

The downward funding spiral stopped after the planned police assassinations in 2015, and more money was promised after the Paris attacks. Now the government trumpets that it has allocated $670 million to the police, but it is all too late. In the security world, more money doesn’t translate instantly into more security. It takes time to build the infrastructure, recruit and train the people, purchase the equipment, and develop the intelligence.

The Belgian government’s admittedly “laissez faire” attitude in the face of an obviously dangerous and growing threat has endangered all of Europe and the United States. Unfortunately, it also supports the call in some quarters for a reexamination of NATO. Belgium has for years failed to meet NATO’s minimum acceptable funding level for national security. It spends less than 1 percent of gross domestic product, one of the lowest levels in Europe, despite Brussels benefiting hugely from a new NATO headquarters, and from its 622 million euro operating budget. In terms of its own protection, Belgium is what President Obama rightly calls a “free rider.”

The Belgium people deserve better than they got. It’s a shame, and the United States and our NATO allies should do everything we can to help them. At the same time, the alliance needs to step up. It’s time for full and frank discussions about NATO members who allow others to pay the price for their failure to protect themselves adequately.

Bruce M. Lawlor, a retired U.S. Army major general, is a former member of the Homeland Security Advisory Council and chief of staff of the Department of Homeland Security.

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