Belgium's Jihadi Problem
17 Nov 2015
With links to a number of attacks in recent years, Belgium is increasingly viewed as a hub for jihadis in Europe. Milo Comerford looks at the scale of the problem in Belgium and explores the underlying cause.
A toxic mix of Salafi-jihadism combined with high numbers of foreign fighters, and assault rifles has seen Belgium become an important base for radicals to launch attacks in Europe.
The investigation into the Paris attacks has thrown a spotlight on Belgium's own jihadi problem. Three of the attackers, Bilal Hadfi, Ibrahim Abdesalam, and Salah Abdesalam, were all based there prior to the attacks in Paris, while two of the vehicles used in the coordinated attacks were also hired in the country.
Belgian authorities have been increasingly concerned over the growing threat of domestic jihadi violence since the Charlie Hebdo attack in January 2015. Amedy Coulibaly, the gunman behind the attack on a Parisian Jewish grocery store in January 2015, obtained weapons used by himself and the Kouachi brothers through connections in Brussels.
Parts of Belgium have surprisingly lax gun control. The suburb of Molenbeek is notorious for a black market in assault weapons, blamed on smugglers who used the Yugoslavia conflict to build a considerable armoury.
Molenbeek also has a strong history of jihadi activity. One of the men jailed for the 2004 Madrid train bombings was from Molenbeek, while Ayoub el-Khazzani, the Moroccan who attempted to open fire on a Paris-bound train in August before being tackled to the ground by bystanders, is believed to have lived there for a time.
Over 500 Belgians have travelled to Iraq and Syria.
The area has strong Salafi roots, attributable in part to Saudi Arabia's construction of mosques and the influence of Gulf-trained clerics in the largely Moroccan municipality.Deputy mayor Ahmed El Khannouss says it is not in Molenbeek's 22 mosques, but rather the more informal network of Salafi meeting places and prayer sites where radicalism is suspected to thrive.
ISIS has recruited successfully in Belgium and it has proportionally the largest number of foreign fighters travelling to Iraq and Syria, with current estimates standing at over 500. Official estimates from the Belgian government believe that around 120 of those have now returned to Belgium and the recent events suggest they remain committed to violent jihad once home.
Many Belgian foreign fighters are linked to Sharia4Belgium, a group originating in Antwerp which recruits young people to fight in Syria and advocates for the imposition of domestic sharia law. Their leader, Fouad Belkacem, was imprisoned for 12 years earlier this year. His trial found that members of the group not only went to fight with ISIS in Syria, but also for al-Qaeda's affiliate, Jabhat al- Nusra, as well as jihadi groups in Yemen. The judge specifically cited Belkacem's influence "for the radicalisation of young men to prepare them for Salafist combat."
This variety of different jihadi groups' presence in Belgium was demonstrated by nationwide raids in June 2015. Police arrested 16 people following intelligence reports about an attack on Belgian soil. Among those arrested were suspects with links to al-Qaeda affiliates Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic Caucasus Emirate, and who had travelled to Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan to receive training.
The focus on ISIS overshadows a wider issue.
The mixing of groups isn't surprising. A recent report by the Centre on Religion & Geopolitics, Inside the Jihadi Mind, demonstrates the underlying shared Salafi-jihadi ideology of al-Qaeda and ISIS, at the heart of both of these groups. In their propaganda, Salafi-jihadi groups specifically emphasise the fact that countries like Belgium contributing to the war effort in Syria are taking part in a "war against Islam."
Abdelhamid Abaaoud, said to be the leader of the Paris attacks, is an ISIS militant and was interviewed in an issue of the group's English-language propaganda magazine Dabiq. He described Belgium as being a "member of the crusader coalition attacking the Muslims" and that he and his accomplices were able to return from Syria to Belgium, obtain weapons, and setup a safe-house as they sought to carry out attacks.
The ideology of Salafi-jihadism is distinct from the Islam practiced by the majority of the world's Muslims, yet is built upon Islamic religious principles, which it distorts to produce a single-minded focus on violent jihad. Because of its ultra-violence and concerted propaganda effort, ISIS is the latest force to capture the headlines.
But Belgium's long association with jihadism shows that the ideology and the number of groups involved goes even deeper. The focus on ISIS and the Belgian links to the Paris attacks overshadows a wider issue; the spread and incubation of the Salafi-jihadi ideology. Though welcome, the dismantling of ISIS alone in Belgium, or the rest of Europe for that matter, will only be dealing with a symptom, not the root cause of the problem.
This article also appears in Newsweek.
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