Amjad Bashir: Reflections from Brussels, a city in grief

Two women board a taxi outside Zaventem airport, one of the sites of two deadly attacks in Brussels.

Two women board a taxi outside Zaventem airport, one of the sites of two deadly attacks in Brussels.

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THE street outside my little room on the Chaussee d’Etterbeek is empty as I write.

Silent too, apart from the occasional wailing of a distant siren or the rumbling of an army truck that passes the window.

I am advised to stay where I am rather than go into my office at the European Parliament, just a couple of hundred yards away across Parc Leopold.

We are in lockdown. The terrorists have struck twice and might again.

You could draw a half mile circle around the EU’s parliament, council and commission buildings, and I am sitting inside it. About 600 yards away is Maelbeek Metro station, which has just been blown up.

Two hours ago, there was only mayhem outside. I never heard the explosion at the Metro, perhaps because it was underground... so my first knowledge that a second attack had followed the one at the airport were the sirens.

Ear-splitting noise as hundreds of police cars, ambulances, fire engines and military vehicles rushed to the station. Then further sirens as victims were ferried away. Then the lockdown and the unearthly quietness.

It allows time to reflect on these ghastly events and the role of the fates. They left me safe when I passed through the airport just 12 hours ago, but took so many other innocent lives this morning, both there and on my doorstep at the Tube station.

As a Muslim, I despair at what some are capable of in the name of a twisted corruption of my faith.

As a proud Briton and Yorkshireman, I wonder whether we are doing enough at home to prevent such hatred stalking our communities.

As a frequent visitor to Brussels, I question what has gone so badly wrong here to make it such productive ground for extremism and terror.

This place gets a bad press, only some of it deserved. I dislike what the Brussels bureaucrats get up to and the diktats they impose on us, but we should not blame the host city for that.

The folk of Brussels are derided by their French neighbours as dull and rather stolid, but in fact the majority are warm and funny and have an engaging lack of respect for hierarchy. A bit like us northerners, to tell the truth.

Brussels is also, despite what you might have read about the now-notorious suburb of Molenbeek, a much more culturally-integrated city than many others in the West. In the main people from different backgrounds live alongside one another as neighbours instead of in ghettos as strangers.

And this highlights all the more what has failed here: a combination of lapses which have allowed parts of this city to become the spawning ground for so much radicalisation - and with such devastating effect.

More would-be fighters have gone from here to join Daesh – the so-called Islamic State – than from anywhere else. At one point it was estimated they were leaving at the rate of 15 a month.

Those who know Brussels better than me say a series of local town hall administrations, in Molenbeek in particular, have been slow to see the potential for radicalisation and unwilling to intervene even when such problems became apparent.

Afraid of appearing racist, and in the face of perceived potential social unrest, they tried to buy off a culture of grievance with lots of public money and thus allowed the sore of resentment and isolation to fester.

Those who know Belgium better than me say the would-be terrorists have been allowed to exploit these fertile conditions all the more by chronic, systematic failings in Belgium’s federal security structure.

The country’s law-enforcement agencies work very much at local and regional level rather than nationally. Half of them speak French and half Flemish. Only here in Brussels do they speak both.

These different police services, I am told, are not automatically made party to the information collected by the federal intelligence services. Nor do they systematically feed back their own on-the ground or surveillance knowledge.

Like so much else in Belgium, the system is disjointed, unreliable, patchy and piecemeal. In less serious circumstances it can be an endearing national trait. Not now.

So a perfect storm of timid politics and ineffective security has allowed this outrage, and that must involve some culpability on Belgium’s part.

But my goodness, her poor people have paid a price. We must stand with them now in our sympathy for their bravery and suffering, our defiance of their attackers, and our resolution that such acts of terror will never intimidate us - however close to home.

And we must remember where blame truly lies...with the terrorists.

Amjad Bashir is Conservative MEP for Yorkshire and the Humber.

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