Elliot McArdle

Naked Politics Blogger

Yesterday, a series of explosions rocked the Belgian capital of Brussels. The chaos is ongoing and the full ramifications of the attacks is still to be understood. It does seem likely that the attacks were carried out by a collection of violent Islamists. The news also comes in the wake of an anti-terror raid in Molenbeek, a suburb in the city, which resulted in the arrest of Salah Abdeslam. It was clear that Abdeslam was planning a large attack in the near future, a large cache of weapons and explosives were found at his residence. Whether today’s events have any connection to this raid or this individual is, as yet, unclear.

However, it is clear that Belgium has a severe problem with Jihadist violence. Several of the perpetrators of last November’s attacks in Paris also hailed from Brussels. Belgium is also one of the highest per capita contributors of European fighters to the ranks of Islamic State, its ranking is also far in excess of its Muslim population. This in itself is worrying enough, but this issue is not a recent one. Belgian citizens have been involved in Islamic extremism for decades.

The first major mobilisation of Belgians in the name of Jihad appears to have been during the Bosnian conflict of the early 90s. Individuals such as Abdelaker Hakimi, now reportedly in Syria, have long been fighting for the establishment of an Islamic State. Networks in Belgium were reportedly vital for the recruitment and transportation of would-be Jihadis.

This pattern of Belgians travelling abroad in the name of Islamism became even more pronounced after the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. Abdelmajid Boucher was heavily involved in the recruitment of suicide bombers such as Maymour Belhadj. Converts were also attracted by the notion of Jihad. Muriel Degauque had converted to Islam shortly before her first marriage. It was her second husband, Hissam Goris, who encouraged her embrace of increasingly fundamentalist faith. She began to avoid her parents and would not even allow herself to be in the same room as her father. She and Goris travelled to Iraq to carry out attacks. Goris was killed before he could carry out his own, Muriel Degauque succeeded in attacking a US convoy, but she was the only fatality. A Belgian cell within Groupe Islamique Marocain Combattant (GICM) had also played a key part in the Madrid bombings of 2004 and recruitment of Jihadists to fight in Iraq, such as Abdel Sulan-al Kharaz

Various explanations have been given for why Belgium has the problem that it does. People have pointed to a lack of integration and have also predictably blamed the rise of certain right-wing parties. Yet the longevity of the issue requires a longer term explanation. The presence of long standing terrorist networks is in itself a cause and a symptom. Numerous writers have described how individuals are often recruited after being introduced to charismatic figures within violent cells. Shariah4Belgium and their prime recruiter, Fouad Belkachem, are believed to be largely responsible for many of the Belgian fighters currently in Syria. The aforementioned GICM and Boucher also played key roles in shuttling Jihadis to Iraq and around Europe. The result is a continuous production line of recruiters and recruits. Those who fought in Bosnia often became examples to be emulated, the next generation carried out their own attacks and assumed the mantle. Authorities are therefore consistently playing catch up, having to monitor new individuals who have suddenly assumed greater importance. This appears to have been the case with Abdeslam.

Dealing with the aftermath of these attacks is going to require a mixture of police and civil society action. It will not simply be enough to say that the perpetrators have nothing to do with Islam or the Belgian Muslim community, yet it will also not be enough to ramp up security measures for a few weeks then move on.  The lack of any consistent terrorist profile makes prevention exceedingly difficult, yet more could have been done to monitor certain Mosques whose clerics are now fighting in Syria for instance, but it is also clear that radicalisation occurs outside of traditional religious spaces as well. More must also be done to foster a sense of belonging within Belgian society, whether this be through inter-community dialogue or economic investment in deprived Muslim areas. One potential avenue is to use reformed fighters and militants to talk of their experiences and the reasons they left violent struggle behind. Directly tackling the poisonous ideology of Islamism must surely also form part of the strategy. Yet it is obvious that these measures would not prevent every susceptible individual from seeking to harm civilians in Europe or travel to Syria. Belgium has a long road ahead; its success or failure could be indicative of Europe’s future.

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Last Update: April 28, 2018