Why Belgium?

Following the November 2015 attacks in Paris, the predominantly Muslim neighborhood of Molenbeek Saint Jean was heavily policed, Brussels, Belgium, November 16, 2015
John Vink/Magnum Images
Police in the Molenbeek neighborhood of Brussels following the attacks in Paris, November 16, 2015

The devastating suicide bombings in Brussels on Tuesday morning have raised new questions about jihadist networks based in Belgium, which were also believed to be behind the attacks in Paris in November. The attacks at the main Belgian airport and in the Brussels subway came just a few days after Salah Abdeslam, the prime suspect in the earlier Paris attacks, was arrested in the Molenbeek neighborhood of Brussels; and Belgian authorities have suggested that there may be other connections to the Paris attacks as well.

Why has Belgium become such a focus of European jihad? And why has it been so difficult for Belgian authorities to contain the problem? Joost Hiltermann spoke to Didier Leroy, a leading terrorism researcher at the Royal Military Academy of Belgium and an adjunct at the Free University of Brussels.

—The Editors


Joost Hiltermann: What do this week’s attacks reveal about the aims of ISIS in Europe?

Didier Leroy: The Brussels attacks have been, without much surprise, claimed and celebrated by ISIS supporters. Ideologically, the symbolic dimension of the targets—the Brussels international airport, less than 5 kilometers away from NATO headquarters, and the Maelbeek subway station, near the main institutions of the European Union—reflects ISIS’s dual view of the world: the struggle of a Muslim oppressed world against a Western oppressing world. At the level of the modus operandi, we find several common features shared by the French and Belgian commandos: relatively small cells of determined individuals hitting as many “soft” (civilian) targets as possible.

In Brussels we now see military back on the streets as we did in November, which raises the question, how are the resources that are available being used?

The strategy as a whole has a preventive and a repressive side. The focus right now is on what we are witnessing in everyday life, what we can directly see, which is the reactive aspect. Deploying the army in the streets of the capital is a way to deter potential threats, and reassure the population. Technically, the army is deployed in fixed stations to guard a key monument, building, or populated area—Grand Place for example—which frees up the police to be more mobile and to be doing more police work, like identity checks and investigative tasks. A soldier could not search someone’s house with a warrant for example.

How is it that a guy like Salah Abdeslam, a leading figure in the Paris attacks, could live undetected in the Belgian capital for months? How is it that Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the alleged Paris ringleader, could move back and forth between Belgium and Syria undetected?  

Firstly, we are talking about Belgian citizens hiding in familiar areas in Belgian territory. They relied on certain networks of loyalties, sometimes through family connections. Several of them also had fake IDs and used these for money transfers, apartment rentals, etc. They further avoided using cell phones, which allowed them to remain under the radar for some time. As soon as the investigation forced them out of one of their hideouts, they started making mistakes and were detected. This being said, another aspect is the lack of (mostly human) resources. The Belgian intelligence services are doing their best to monitor roughly one thousand “potentially dangerous” individuals. You cannot follow all of them 24/7, it’s technically not feasible.

Much has been made of the fact that Belgium has a higher number of jihadists relative to its population than any other European country.

According to recent statements by Interior Minister Jan Jambon, the number of Belgian “foreign fighters” reached around 470 individuals as of January 2016. Flanders and Brussels would each account for roughly 45 percent of the departures, the rest coming from the southern region of Wallonia. (This tends to invalidate the assumption that social-economic grievances and poverty may be driving radicalization, since the economy in the north of the country is significantly stronger.) As my colleague Rik Coolsaet has documented in a new report, among these 470 individuals who have attempted to go to Syria, roughly 60 didn’t manage to reach Syrian territory in the first place; some 80 have presumably been killed; and about 190 are still believed to be operating in Syria or Iraq. While some 130 of them have gone and have now returned to Belgium.

And most of these recruits have joined ISIS? Are they still going?

Approximately 70 percent of those whose affiliation could be established with a reasonable degree of certainty has been fighting under the ISIS banner. Overall, the monthly average of departures seems to have gradually dropped from its peak of some fifteen per month (in 2012-2013) to an average of five per month during the year 2015.

In view of this week’s attacks, are the 130 jihadists who have returned to Belgium increasingly viewed as a threat? Are they ticking time bombs?

No one can answer this question with specific data. It’s not measurable. We know that about a third of those who have returned have been arrested and jailed. I’m inclined to say that most of the remaining individuals don’t pose a threat. The problem is, even if most of them pose no threat at all and only regret this dark episode of their life, a small minority could still cause a lot of damage as we witnessed on March 22. So we must remain vigilant, in spite of the difficulty of trying to monitor all these people. Having at one’s disposal an Excel spreadsheet with roughly one thousand names is one thing, but the next one is to know how to manage this database.

What do we know about the thousand people on the watch list?

Apart from the 470 known foreign fighters, there are individuals in various stages of radicalization: some of them have shown obvious symptoms of being radicalized, some have only expressed a wish to go to Syria or Iraq. Among those who have left Belgian territory, some are only assumed to be fighting for IS, Jabhat al-Nusra or other Jihadi groups. Others are known to have reached Syria or Iraq for that specific purpose. Also, some others have left Syria or Iraq but have not been identified as back in Belgium yet.

We cannot say that Belgian jihadists fit a general profile. There are men and women, individuals and groups (sometimes couples or whole families), older and very young people. Abdelhamid Abaaoud’s younger brother Younes was thirteen when he went to Syria—and I think was then considered the youngest case in 2013. That being said, the age range of foreign fighters from Belgium is typically twenty to twenty-four. The education level is often below that of the average population. Foreign fighters with college degrees exist, but they constitute a small minority, as far as Belgium is concerned. Most were known to police and intelligence before their departure. Belgians with Moroccan family background are significantly overrepresented on the list (more than 80 percent), while converts to Islam would represent less than 10 percent. 

Belgian jihadists, including Younes Abaaoud, Syria, 2015
Pieter Van Ostaeyen/pietervanostaeyen.wordpress.com
Belgian jihadists, including Younes Abaaoud, Syria, 2015

Both Abdeslam and Abaaoud were of Belgian-Moroccan background. Why are second and third generation Moroccan immigrants in Belgium so vulnerable to radicalization?

Integration has worked very well in the vast majority of cases, but a number of individuals among the younger generation are clearly facing an identity crisis. Though born in Belgium, they feel discriminated against because of their Arabic family names, North-African looks, or Islamic religious beliefs. But when they go to Morocco to visit relatives there, most probably do not feel Moroccan either, because they are not perceived as such for a number of reasons. This dilemma probably explains, at least partially, a need to belong to something else beyond family, community, or society—something bigger, with better opportunities or promises for the future. This is where the “re-Islamicization” process can come in. While these youth have usually been Islamicized through family education and in official mosques, some of them can be “born again” via the Internet, in improvised da‘wa (proselytism) circles, or in jail. Internal rifts can then appear at the core of certain families where the older generations practicing the traditional “Maleki” Sunni rite (typical of the Maghreb region) are confronted by a growing “Hanbali” influence–in particular the Wahhabi tradition from the Gulf region, known for its puritanical, or Salafi, approach to Islam–promoted by the younger generation. The Salafi brand has visibly gained some momentum in certain neighborhoods of predominantly Moroccan districts like Molenbeek: you can notice it by the type of veil worn by some women, the type of untrimmed beard without moustache preferred by men, and so on.

Belgium has one of the largest Moroccan minorities in Europe, as many as 500,000 of its 11.2 million people. A lot of these families originally came as workers in the Sixties and Seventies, right?

Yes, we celebrated fifty years of Moroccan immigration last year. So that’s where a major part of the stream comes from. I think the one element that has affected the Moroccan community is that they suffered from the economic circumstances, notably with the oil crisis in the early 1970s, which is something that the Italians or Spaniards from Belgium didn’t really suffer from because they were here earlier so they already had their business going on, or they had already started to ascend in the social scale. So fewer opportunities, more ghettoization in a certain way.

This doesn’t seem to be happening as much to other Muslim communities in Belgium. What about the Turkish minority, which also counts several hundred thousand people?

There’s a clear difference between the Moroccan and Turkish communities. We have very few if any Turks on the list of at-risk individuals. So it’s not about Islam, because the Turks are Sunni Muslims also. And I don’t remember my colleagues at the federal police mentioning one Turkish name. In Schaerbeek, for example, the population is predominantly Moroccan and Turkish, and it’s very clear: you have no momentum in the Turkish population to join IS. And this is probably associated with a certain type of identity construction in the Turkish community. They tend to be specifically attached to their language, more than anything else, which limits the exposure to Wahhabi proselytism. I think that money from Gulf countries has done a lot of damage in Moroccan mosques in Belgium on that level. Some mosques have been more and more under the sway of Saudi imams or of Moroccan-Belgian citizens who have been trained in and funded by Saudi Arabia and who are spreading Wahhabi doctrine. Most Turkish mosques, to my knowledge, are financed and managed by the Diyanet institution, largely associated with the Hanafi school of jurisprudence. And then, there is also the secularist heritage of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk of course, which probably still plays a part at some level too.

Apart from religious infrastructure, are there other issues that seem to be making the people on the watch list more susceptible to recruitment?  

I believe that an under-analyzed element in the radicalization process is the psychological one. Many, many people can feel anger when a Western superpower is bombing a developing country, or be curious about jihadi-Salafi propaganda, or feel injustice based on social and economic discrimination. But why do all these potential motivators affect individuals in such different ways? Why is it that some will keep on struggling to deal with these issues in their personal development, while others throw their whole lives away and pick up arms? Because these influences mobilize their emotions differently, I think. The emotional architecture of an individual is often shaped in the early years of childhood and has to do with the quality of the parental relationship. It affects the way he or she will be sensitive to other influences. It’s worth pointing out that more and more terrorist attacks have involved siblings in recent years: the Tsarnaev brothers from the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013, the Kouachi brothers from the Charlie Hebdo attack in January 2015, and now the Abdeslam brothers from the Paris attacks and the el-Bakraoui brothers from the Brussels attacks.

Although it is extremely difficult to investigate this aspect of things, I am convinced that we might gain much understanding about the motivations of terrorist acts by examining the family situation, whether or not there is a history of family tension or violence, of the attackers in question. I am not talking exclusively about physical violence from the fathers, as this leaves visible scars and is often easily identified. It’s the invisible scars, perhaps induced by moral and verbal violence from the mothers, that might shed some new light on certain kinds of extremist behavior.

It does seem that a single explanation for why so many Europeans—and so many Belgians in particular—have gone to fight in Syria has eluded us.

In general I would say that you have as many reasons to go to fight in Syria as you have individuals. The most recent research on political violence, to my knowledge, has identified four main influences that seem to be present most of the time in the case of true hardcore extremists: (1) ideology, (2) socialization, (3) grievances, and (4) rational choice. But so many factors have to be taken into account to understand the trajectory. I mean, in some cases you have people who are very into eschatological literature and who are really drawn to this end-time utopia that ISIS presents them. Some other guys are just low-level criminals looking for something to make out of their life and don’t even present any sign of radicalization, they just kind of “recycle” their violence for a Cause with a capital “C.” They first become violent and then all of a sudden it’s for ISIS.

So the link to the ISIS’s Caliphate project may actually be fairly loose for some of these radicalized youth in Belgium?

Historically there are almost no links between Belgium and Syria or Iraq. I am still rather skeptical about the depth of structural connections between these young jihadi candidates and ISIS, which is a Middle Eastern phenomenon in the first place (and the so-called Caliphate has regional priorities before global ones). I see ISIS as a “heterarchical” organization, characterized by an undisputed leader—the self-proclaimed Caliph Ibrahim—but also by a shared decisional process. The ISIS central command in Rakka could be regarded as a vertical entity, which becomes more “horizontal” when it reaches the external layer of foreign recruits. There certainly is a central, top-down policy calling on fighters to hit enemies of the “Islamic State project” wherever possible, but the when, the how, etcetera, are left to the initiative of individuals or small groups—it’s up to them to decide the best way to proceed. Most of these recruits obviously know their countries of origin well, have grown up with the Internet and the images of 9/11 in their minds, and are determined to “do better” than old-fashioned al-Qaeda. 

Testosterone also has a significant influence here, given the average age of Belgian jihadists. If you remove the beards, the Korans, and the black flags from most ISIS propaganda videos, you are left with something that resembles certain US hip hop videos! Big cars, guns everywhere, gang members posing together. In our globalized world, the violence of ISIS is not that remote from Hollywood movies like Mad Max or Japanese mangas like Hokuto No Ken. ISIS is trying to evoke the Islamic Middle Ages, but the Toyota vehicles and the Nike sneakers tell us something else.