TerrorismBelgium confronting home-grown jihadist threat
Belgium is Europe’s biggest per capita contributor of fighters to Syria and law enforcement officials fear that at least seventy of 350 Belgian fighters have returned home equipped with skills they learned on the battle field. The Belgian government had brought the concern to national attention in an October document warning about the “danger of violent jihadism that threatens to spread in our society.” Belgian officials have not found a link between the Paris attacks earlier this month and planned attacks in Belgium in the following days – attacks thwarted by swift police preemptive action — but common elements include: a clustering of radicals in a small area, the connection between petty criminality and jihadist violence, and the role of prison as an incubator for extremism.
Shortly after this month’s Paris attacks, Belgian authorities raided several extremist hideaways, claiming they stopped what was an imminent terrorist attack on targets including a local police station. They named Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the Belgian-born son of an immigrant shopkeeper from Morocco, as a possible leader or “presumed mastermind” of one of the planned attacks. Abaaoud, who went to Syria a year ago, also recruited his younger, now 14-year old, brother to join him to wage jihad and fight alongside other fighters. “Naturally, this was a big shock,” Yasmina, their older sibling, told the New York Times.
Like many European Muslims who have traveled to Syria, Abaaoud is believed to have returned to Europe to help plan attacks on local targets. Belgium is Europe’s biggest per capita contributor of fighters to Syria and law enforcement officials fear that at least seventy of 350 Belgian fighters have returned home equipped with skills they learned on the battle field. The Belgian government had brought the concern to national attention in an October document warning about the “danger of violent jihadism that threatens to spread in our society.” Pieter Van Ostaeyen, a Belgian researcher who has been monitoring the movement of Syria-bound jihadists from Belgium, believe the number of Belgian fighters in Syria is closer to 450, less than half the number from France but still a large figure for a country of only eleven million people.
Belgian officials have not found a link between the Paris attacks and the planned attacks in Belgium, but common elements include: a clustering of radicals in a small area, the connection between petty criminality and jihadist violence, and the role of prison as an incubator for extremism.
After the Belgian police raided a residence in the city of Verviers, near the German border, on 15 January, they focused their counterterrorism efforts on the Molenbeek district of Brussels, Belgium’s second poorest area with a 40 percent youth unemployment rate and an immigrant community with twenty-two mosques known to local officials — compared to roughly five churches— and others that operate underground. “The network that was dismantled in Verviers is a network that had its origins in Molenbeek,” said Françoise Schepmans, the mayor of Molenbeek. “That is evident. They just rented a hideaway at Verviers.”
Ostaeyen believes Molenbeek has been a breeding ground for Islamic extremism partly due to the role of “Sharia4Belgium,” a local campaign set up in 2010 to promote Islamic law, but which later focused on recruiting fighters for Syria. The group’s leader, 32-year old Fouad Belkacem, has a long arrest record for petty crimes including theft and assault, but went on trial last September for belonging to a terrorist group and brainwashing young people. A verdict in his case was due in January but has now been postponed. The Times points out that as was the case with Belkacem and Amedy Coulibaly, who attacked the kosher supermarket in Paris earlier this month, Abaaoud, accused of being the leader of the foiled Belgian plot, had been arrested and spent time in prison for petty crimes, before he adopted a jihadist view. “He was radicalized in prison at Saint Gilles,” Mustafa Er, an aide to the Schepmans, said, referring to a jail in southern Brussels.
Abaaoud’s older sister, Yasmina, assured that her brothers had no interest in religion before departing to Syria. “They did not even go to the mosque,” she said.
The whereabouts of Abaaoud and his younger brother are unknown, but their family noted that they received calls last fall from Syria saying Abaaoud had become a “martyr” who died in battle. Investigators believe the “martyr” call was to confuse Western intelligence agencies to stop looking for Abaaoud. At the time of his reported death, Abaaoud had appeared in a video message driving a pickup truck carrying corpses across a field, while urging fellow Muslims to join him in Syria. “Are you satisfied with the life you lead, a humiliating life, whether you are in Europe, in Africa, in Arab countries or in America? Are you satisfied with this life, with this life of humiliation?” he asked. Only jihad could restore your pride, he added. “You will find this only in your religion, only in jihad,” he said. “Is there anything better than jihad or a martyr?”