Belgium has the highest per-capita rate of foreign fighters of any Western European country, and its anti-terrorism police are struggling to keep up with the number of cases of radicalized individuals they see.
The small country, which shares borders with France, the Netherlands, and Germany, has been described as “Europe’s terror hotbed,” a moniker that was widely repeated in various forms on Tuesday when more than 30 people were killed and more than 200 injured after explosions ripped through a Brussels airport and metro station.
The terrorists who are thought to be responsible for the Brussels bombings also have links to the November attacks in Paris that killed 130 people. The terrorist group ISIS (also known as the Islamic State, ISIL, or Daesh), claimed responsibility for both attacks.
Both plots were at least partially planned in Belgium, which is thought to have an extensive network of jihadists. Belgians have contributed more than 400 fighters to extremist groups in Syria and Iraq, according to a 2015 report from strategic security firm The Soufan Group. Of those, more than 100 are thought to have returned to Belgium.
There’s no one-size-fits-all explanation for why so many young Belgians are drawn to terrorist organisations, but experts have identified socio-economic inequality, existing terrorist networks, and an overwhelmed security force as major factors that make Belgium a fertile ground for extremism.
Belgium has long-existing jihadi networks that became especially active as Western countries got involved in conflicts in the Middle East.
Edwin Bakker, director of the Centre for Terrorism and Counterterrorism of Leiden University in the Netherlands, told Business Insider that Belgium’s participation in a US-led anti-ISIS coalition has been cited as a reason why terrorist have targeted the small European country.
“The existence of a number of well-organised salafi-jihadist networks — such as Sharia4Belgium — contributed to the growth of salafi-jihadist scenes from which many individuals left for Syria after the outbreak of the civil war and after governmental action was taken against these organisations,” Bakker said in an email.
The (long) existence of jihadist networks is an important explanation, in combination with charismatic leadership. That also explains why some cities have “produced” no or only a few jihadist foreign fighters and cities and towns like Brussels and Vilvoorde relatively many.
Petter Nesser, a senior researcher with the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment and author of the recent book “Islamist Terrorism in Europe,” noted after the Paris attacks that savvy jihadi recruiters can be a powerful pull:
The European jihadi underground revolves around experienced jihad entrepreneurs, who recruit and socialise misfits and drifters, politicize grievances they may have, and employ them as tools for transnational militants, such as al-Qaeda and IS. Social despair may create a hospitable environment for recruitment, but in many cases social ties and loyalty to entrepreneurs are sufficient driving forces.
In an article for The New Yorker last year, Ben Taub noted that the Sharia4Belgium group, established in 2010, recruited dozens of young Belgian people to travel to Syria and wage jihad. The group wanted to “replace the parliament with a shura council and the Prime Minister with a caliph; stone adulterers and execute homosexuals; and convert or banish all non-Muslims, or force them to pay jizya, a tax levied on those who don’t adhere to the faith.”
Essentially, the group wanted to transform Belgium into an Islamic state governed by strict Sharia law.
Segregation and lack of opportunity
A lack of opportunity and feeling isolated from more privileged parts of European society couple with a lack of knowledge about Islam could attract young Europeans to jihadist recruiters, who offer them a purpose in jihad and promise that they will be sent to heaven as religious martyrs.
Taub noted that one Belgian fighter who had been raised Catholic was drawn to Sharia4Belgium after his grades started slipping at school and his girlfriend dumped him. He later told police that he started “looking for an alternative to the pain” and then found Islam and, eventually, Sharia4Belgium.
Each person’s path to radicalization is different, but some young Belgians who don’t have much opportunity at home and are searching for purpose in their lives might feel that foreign jihad or attacks on the homeland offer a worthy path.
“Some argue that Syria and the violent jihad attracted more Belgians because of social-economic problems that young (north-African) Muslims are facing in places like Brussels,” Bakker said.
In contrast, as US President Barack Obama pointed out on Wednesday, one of the reasons the US hasn’t seen more homegrown terrorist attacks is that the US has “an extraordinarily successful, patriotic, integrated Muslim-American community.”
In many places of Europe, Muslim immigrants are not integrated into the mainstream.
Rik Coolsaet, a terrorism expert and professor at Belgium’s Ghent Institute for International Studies, described the situation in the Brussels suburb of Molenbeek in a paper that was published two weeks ago:
More than a decade and a half before it became a “global byword for jihadism,” it was the scene of some widespread rioting (similar to the rioting in English or French suburbs). At the time, the aforementioned Belgian investigative journalist Chris De Stoop attempted to gauge the malaise in this borough. He found a complex mosaic, composed of vibrant local community activities, pockets of genuine despair and accumulated frustrations, and cliques of troublemakers.
This rioting, according to a local social worker, was born out of desperation about lacking prospects in a neighbourhood characterised by poor job prospects, bad housing and deficient education.
But the roots of jihadism have a more complicated origin. Nesser cautioned against relying too much on the socio-economic trope to explain why some Belgian youth are attracted to extremism.
“Although jihadi hubs are oftentimes located in socio-economically deprived areas, this is not always the case,” Nesser wrote. “For instance, the new generation of jihadis in Europe,” including the Sharia4 groups that exist in several areas of Europe, “recruited many members among university students and in middle class environments in the UK.”
Overwhelmed security forces
An expert who met with Belgian counterterrorism officials last week told Business Insider on Tuesday that the country is overwhelmed by the number of radicalized people who pose threats to the country.
“Belgians have a really big problem because they have the largest number per capita of western foreign fighters from any country,” said Matthew Levitt, the director of The Washington Institute’s Stein Program on Counterterrorism and Intelligence, adding that Belgian police have only begun to understand the depth of the country’s terrorism problem in the past year.
“The numbers are simply overwhelming.”
The problem of radicalization in Belgium has been festering for a while, making it more difficult to reign in.
“They have a problem both in terms of getting on top of the immediate threat that has developed over time and then also moving the needle early in the process and putting in place a 20-year plan in places like Molenbeek to prevent radicalization,” Levitt said.
Because authorities have only recently come to terms with the extent of the problem, the cooperation between police forces and intelligence networks on the ground aren’t where they need to be.
“The situation in Brussels is worrisome where local officials do not cooperate and police forces have little connection to the populations of parts of the Brussels region with a lot of Muslim migrants,” Bakker said.
“In other words, they lack eyes and ears on the ground,” he said. “They are investing in local networks, but it seems a case of too little too late.”