Belgium: Jihad Central

21 November 2015 7:51 am

Over the last week, there’s been a lot of focus on Belgium as Europe’s jihadi haven

Consider the list of jihadi connections: Abdelhamid Abaaoud - the alleged mastermind behind the Paris attacks - grew up in a family of six children in the rundown neighbourhood of the Brussels district of Molenbeek; Salah Abdeslam, now Europe's most-wanted man, also lived in Molenbeek along with his brothers - Paris suicide bomber Ibrahim Abdeslam and Mohamed Abdeslam, who was arrested as a suspect but was later released; Molenbeek - where some areas are up to 80 per cent Muslim - was searched as part of anti-terror operations that were carried out in Belgium in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January; Ayoub el Khazzani - the gunman who tried to attack a Thalys train travelling from Brussels to Paris in August - stayed in Molenbeek before the attempted shooting - which was foiled by three Americans; Mehdi Nemmouche - the Frenchman who shot dead four people at a Jewish museum in Brussels in May 2014 - also has links with the Brussels district.

The Guardian lists a string of terror attacks—the 2004 Madrid bombing, last year’s Jewish museum murders in Belgium, and this summer’s foiled Paris-Amsterdam train attack—that all link back to Molenbeek.

Belgium – a country with a population of just 11million and under half a million Muslims - has produced more jihadi fighters per capita than any other country in Europe.

It’s happening for a number of reasons. As Christian Oliver and Duncan Robinson at the Financial Times point out, one of big attractions is Belgium’s thriving arms industry, lax gun laws and a pedigree of gun manufacturing, led by FN Herstal in the Wallonia region. The country has an unusually high number of people with technical and commercial expertise in guns.

They write: “Claude Moniquet, a former French spy and co-founder of the European Strategic Intelligence and Security Centre, said there was mounting evidence that the Belgian gun trade, once focused on criminals, has expanded to providing arms to jihadis. Mr Moniquet said the black market for firearms, including gun runners around Gare du Midi, have seen prices spike in line with the increased risk of sales. Just a few years ago, an AK-47 with 300-400 rounds included could be acquired for about €400. Now, Mr Moniquet says, prices have risen to €1,000 to €2,000.

“The flow of illegal guns into Belgium began in earnest in the 1990s amid the Balkan wars and the fall of the Soviet Union. Mr Moniquet says a large Balkan community built up during those years, when guns circulated freely around the fragmenting Yugoslavia, and former communist officials took to trafficking their states’ vast and often mothballed munitions reserves.

“Mr Moniquet estimates that 90 per cent of the arms circulating in Belgium probably originate from the Balkans. ‘You have mountains of Kalashnikovs in Bosnia, Serbia and Croatia,’ he says. ‘When you take in people, you take in their luggage. Smuggling is a living tradition for these guys.’

Also, Belgian authorities find it difficult to penetrate poor neighbourhoods such as Molenbeek, home to a large community of north African origin.

Security officials say it is common for militant cells to use safe houses, where weapons are permanently ready for returning foreign fighters. Such pickups are quick and hard to intercept.

The Wall Street Journal tells us Belgium’s Interior Ministry estimates about 270 of its citizens are currently living in Syria, with numbers climbing each month.

Pieter Van Ostaeyen, a Flemish researcher and expert on Belgian jihadism. estimates Belgium has sent between 350 and 550 fighters, including women and adolescents as young as 16, to join Islamic State insurgents in Syria. Freshly trained and equipped, Van Ostaeyen believes many militants return to Belgium with eyes locked on domestic targets.

According to Chams Eddine Zaougui at the New York Times, the deep divisions in Belgian society creates a form of linguistic apartheid that divides the Dutch-speaking Flemings and the French-speaking Walloons. Listening to their respective media outlets and politicians, you could be forgiven for thinking that the country of Belgium doesn’t exist. The two communities live completely apart.

“This also leads to administrative dysfunction: Belgium has no less than six governments: a federal government, a Flemish government for the Flanders region, a government of the French community, a government of the German-speaking community, a government of the Walloon region and a government of the Brussels-Capital Region,’’ he writes.

As a result, both the Flanders and Brussels governments have done far too little grass-roots work to prevent the radicalization of young people. Only the Flanders government has a specific integration program, which is responsible only for the Flemish part of the country. In Brussels, people can enroll in a voluntary integration program. The Walloon government focuses on broader socioeconomic integration, but has no specific integration policy.

“Belgium needs a multifaceted response that brings together the different police authorities, targets potential jihadists and strengthens the security community by hiring Arabic speakers. But there must also be investment in grass-roots initiatives involving Muslim youth and preachers to prevent radicalization in the community,’’ Zaougui writes.

Given the slowness of the government there, that’s likely to be a long time coming. Meanwhile, the jihadists will continue to use Belgium as their base