What is the Jihadi Threat to Belgium?
22 Mar 2016
The seemingly coordinated attacks on an airport and metro station in Brussels have once again drawn attention to Belgium, which is no stranger to jihadi groups.
With ISIS reportedly claiming the attacks in Brussels on the Zeventem airport and the Maalbeek metro station that killed more than 30, the seemingly coordinated assaults highlight the threat Belgium faces from jihadi militants. A toxic mix of Salafi-jihadism combined with high numbers of foreign fighters, and easy access to arms, has seen the country become an important base for radicals to launch attacks in Europe.
The investigation into the Paris attacks threw a spotlight on this challenge. The last remaining suspect wanted for those attacks, Salah Abdesalam, was arrested in Brussels on 18 March. The manhunt that culminated in his eventual arrest highlighted the relative ease with which highly publicised jihadis were able to hide in the city right under the eyes of the security services.
While investigators have welcomed his capture, describing him as being "worth his weight in gold," the attacks in Brussels show how the country's jihadi problem is broader than a few known individuals.
Abdesalam is described as having changed his mind about blowing himself up during the Paris attacks, but investigators have indicated that he was planning further attacks from Brussels. Today's bombings will no doubt lead to further scrutiny of these statements.
Belgium has become an important base for jihadis in Europe.
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, where Salah Abdesalam was captured, is also no stranger to 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 2015 before being tackled to the ground by bystanders, is believed to have lived there for a time.
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.
Proportionally, Belgium has the largest number of foreign fighters travelling to Iraq and Syria.
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. Its leader, Fouad Belkacem, was imprisoned for 12 years last 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 Salafi 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.
Abdelhamid Abaaoud, said to be the leader of the Paris attacks, was an ISIS militant in Syria 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.
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.
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