Belgium is the main center of homegrown jihadism in Europe. Having been the base of the terrorist cell Sharia4Belgium, it witnesses a constant growth of foreign fighters coming back from Syria with strong and extremist ideology. It is not a case that this phenomenon regards mostly the 3rd generation of migrants: there are concrete problems of unemployment, discrimination and housing, that concern many neighbourhoods of the main cities in Belgium. In addition, the fragmentation of Muslim Community makes it easy for terrorists to recruit youngsters, appearing to them as a hope for future.
Radicalism is not a new issue for the Belgian Authorities. According to the recent estimates of The Guardian, the amount of Belgian foreign fighters is around 350/550 people.
The country has been the base of Sharia4Belgium, part of the network Sharia4, that contributed to train youngsters as potential jihadists.
Police authorities discovered that some trainings took place in the Dambruggestraat neighbourhood of Antwerp1. Born in 2010, this cell has not been considered a real security threat until 2012, when the Belgian authorities started to take counter-measures. However, this intervention came too late: thanks to the connections on the Syrian soil, an incredible amount of youngsters went to fight and returned.
Despite the group Sharia4, back to the 2010s, some members of the Group Islamique Marocain Combattant, operating from Belgium, has been proved to be involved in the planning of the terrorist attacks in Madrid, in 20042. In 2012, some members of Sharia4Belgium clashed with the police in Brussels neighbourhood of Molenbeek-Saint-Jean, after the police attempted to detain a woman wearing the niqab3. On the 11th February 2015, the trial against some representatives of the Sharia4Belgium helped to downsize the dangerousness of the cell. However, some serious episodes showed that Sharia4Belgium has planted seeds from which more serious threat has been created, as the attack at the Jewish Museum in Brussels, the presence of the jihadist cell in Veviers (January 2015), and the failed attack at the the Thalys train (August 2015) demonstrated.
As the Egmont Institute has stated, “despite the disappearance of the cell Sharia4Belgium, young people still leave for Syria and, most of all return with a more convincing extremist ideology, because the key to understand the phenomenon rely on the context in which those people live and are influenced, rather than the extremist ideology”4. In fact, youngsters are indoctrinated in their neighbourhoods, by their imams or friends who returned from Syria. They usually are young identity seekers, generally male with a migrant background, who become “newborn”Muslim. The appealing of the jihad is due to the grievances that follow up things like unemployment, discrimination and housing, that affected some Belgian neighbourhoods. This leads to the next point.
As the Belgian Minister of the Interior, Jan Jambon, said, the issue of radicalism concerns the third generation of migrants5. Belgium has always been a country interested by big migration waves. In the early 1960s, the first waves of migrants from Morocco, Turkey, and later from Algeria and Tunisia, came in the country. Nowadays, the Moroccan community represents the second largest community in Belgium, followed by Turkish. Those communities are mostly concentrated in the industrial areas of the French-speaking part of the country, the city of Veviers is an example. Even if the second generation of migrants usually holds important job positions, compared to native Belgian, non-EU born Belgian citizens are underrepresented and, among them, the youngsters are suffering high unemployment rates. This condition is visible in some neighbourhoods of Brussels, such as Schaerbeek, Saint-Josse, Molenbeek or some part of Saint Gilles, that are considered disadvantaged. Charles Picquet, mayor of Saint Gilles, stated last May that ,because of this social marginalisation, those areas may become “incubator of radicalisation”. As Le soir underlines, in 2010, some shootings of kalashnikov took place in Anderlecht and Molnebeek6. At that time it was not considered as jihadist terrorism, rather a wake-up call for another threat to handle: the social explosion. In fact, those neighbourhoods were interested by a high urban concentration and high rates of unemployment, especially regarding 20 years old young people, whose 40% living in Molenbeek7. However, from that moment few steps ahead have been made.
Moreover, in the case of Brussels, as the Minister of the Interior underlines, there are 19 municipalities with 19 Mayors and 6 police departments, and this makes difficult to coordinate effective police operations8.
In addition to that, a part of responsibility belongs to Muslim community in Belgium, which is fragmented. Radicalised youngsters find in the jihadist rhetoric a fulfilment to their “sense of estrangement” provoked by social exclusion. In order to face the radicalised rhetoric, the role of “mainstream Islam” has to be reinforced and Imams have to be included in the de-radicalisation dialogue. In this regard, some attempts have been made by “Empowering Belgian Muslims”, an organisation including professionals involved in the civil society, whose aim is to strengthen social inclusion from the inside; and the Union of Mosque for the intra-community dialogue.
Monica Esposito, School of International Studies – University of Kent.
1 J. Brandon, “Trial uncovers Europe’s forgotten jihadists”, 2015, p.1.
2 G. Van Vlierden “How Belgium become a top exporter of jihad”, 2015, p. 4.
3 see footnote no. 1.
4 R. Coolsaet “What drives Europeans to Syria and to IS? Insights from the Belgian Case”, Egmont Royal Institute for International Relations, Egmont Paper no.75, 2015, p. 1-24.
5 K. Day, “Why Brussels is a terrorism hotspot?”, POLITICO, November 15, 2015.
6 Delvaux, Béatrice “Bruxelles et Molenbeek sont l’affaire de tous”, Le Soir, November 17, 2015.
8 see footnote 4.