The terrorist attacks on the airport and metro in Brussels are casting a spotlight, once again, on Belgium’s ignominious role as a European haven for jihadists.
Several distinct but interconnected factors help explain why Brussels, the political capital of Europe, has emerged as the jihadist capital of Europe.
The Muslim population of Belgium is expected to reach 700,000 in 2016, or around 6.2% of the overall population, according to figures extrapolated from a recent study by the Pew Research Center. In percentage terms, Belgium has one of the highest Muslim populations in Western Europe.
In metropolitan Brussels — where roughly half of Belgium’s Muslims currently live — the Muslim population has reached 300,000, or roughly 25%. This makes Brussels one of the most Islamic cities in Europe.
Approximately 100,000 Muslims live in the Brussels district of Molenbeek, which has emerged as the center of Belgian jihadism.
Belgium’s radical Islam problem originated in the 1960s, when Belgian authorities encouraged mass migration from Turkey and Morocco as a source of cheap labor. They were later followed by migrants from Egypt and Libya.
The factories eventually closed, but the migrants stayed and planted family roots. Today, most Muslims in Belgium are the third- and fourth-generation offspring of the original migrants. While many Belgian Muslims are integrated into Belgian society, many others are not.
Growing numbers of Belgian Muslims live in marginal districts — isolated ghettos where poverty, unemployment and crime are rampant. In Molenbeek, the unemployment rate hovers at around 40%. Radical imams aggressively canvass the area in search of shiftless youths to wage jihad against the West.
As in other European countries, many Muslims in Belgium are embracing Salafism — a radical form of Islam — and its call to wage violent jihad against all nonbelievers for the sake of Allah.
Salafism takes its name from the Arabic term salaf, which means predecessors or ancestors — meaning of Mohammed. Salafists trace their roots to Saudi Arabia, the Mohammed’s birthplace. They glorify an idealized vision of what they claim is the true, original Islam, practiced by the earliest generations of Muslims, including Mohammed and his companions and followers, in the 7th and 8th centuries. The aim of Salafism is to recreate a pure form of Islam in the modern era.
This goal presents serious problems for modern, secular and pluralistic states. A recent German intelligence report defined Salafism as a “political ideology, the followers of which view Islam not only as a religion but also a legal framework which regulates all areas of life: from the state’s role in organizing relations between people, to the private life of the individual.”
The report added: “Salafism rejects the democratic principles of separation of state and religion, popular sovereignty, religious and sexual self-determination, gender equality and the fundamental right to physical integrity.”
Although Salafists make up only a small fraction of Europe’s burgeoning Muslim community, authorities are increasingly worried that many of those attracted to Salafi ideology are impressionable young Muslims who may be receptive to calls for violence in the name of Islam.
Before the rise of the Islamic State, the best-known Salafist group in Belgium was Sharia4Belgium, which played an important role in radicalizing Belgian Muslims.
Sharia4Belgium was outlawed in February 2015, when its leader, Fouad Belkacem,was sentenced to 12 years in prison. A partial archive of the group’s former website can be found at the Internet Archive. There Sharia4Belgium issues an invitation to all Belgians to convert to Islam and submit to Sharia law or face the consequences. The text states:
“It is now 86 years since the fall of the Islamic Caliphate. The tyranny and corruption in this country [Belgium] has prevailed; we go from one scandal to another: Economic crises, paedophilia, crime, growing Islamophobia, etc.
“As in the past we [Muslims] have saved Europe from the dark ages, we now plan to do the same. Now we have the right solution for all crises and this is the observance of the divine law, namely Sharia. We call to implement Sharia in Belgium.
“Sharia is the perfect system for humanity. In 1,300 years of the Islamic state we knew only order, welfare and the protection of all human rights. We know that Spain, France and Switzerland knew their best times under Sharia. In these 1,300 years, 120 women were raped, which is equal to 120 women a day in Europe. There were barely 60 robberies recorded in 1,300 years.
“As a result, we invite the royal family, parliament, all the aristocracy and every Belgian resident to submit to the light of Islam. Save yourself and your children of the painful punishment of the hereafter and grant yourself eternal life in paradise.”
A cache of the background image for the Sharia4Belgium website has the black flag of jihad flying above the Belgian Parliament. Until recently, the Sharia4Belgium YouTube page (also shut down) was used to incite Muslims to jihad. The group had posted videos with titles such as, “Jihad Is Obligatory,” “Encouraging Jihad,” “Duelling & Guerrilla Warfare,” and “The Virtues of Martyrdom.” Thus Sharia4Belgium paved the way for the Islamic State in Belgium.
One of the smallest countries in Western Europe, Belgium has become Europe’s biggest per capita source of jihadists fighting in Syria and Iraq. According to data provided by Interior Minister Jan Jambon on February 22, 2016, 451 Belgian citizens have been identified as jihadists. Of these, 269 are on the battlefields in Syria or Iraq; 6 are believed currently to be on their way to the war zone; 117 have returned to Belgium; and 59 attempted to leave but were stopped at the border.
According to Jambon, 197 of the jihadists are from Brussels: 112 are in Syria while 59 have returned to Belgium. Another 195 jihadists are from Flanders: 133 are in Syria while 36 have returned.
Belgium is the EU’s leading supplier of jihadists to the Islamic State per capita: around 40 jihadists per million inhabitants, compared to Denmark (27), Sweden (19), France (18), Austria (17), Finland (13); Norway (12), UK (9.5), Germany (7.5) and Spain (2).
During the past 24 months, at least five jihadist attacks have been linked to Belgium. In May 2014, jihadists attacked the Jewish Museum in Brussels. In August 2014, a jihadist with links to Molenbeek attacked an Amsterdam-to-Paris train. In January 2015, Belgian police carried out an anti-jihadist raid in Verviers, Belgium.
In November 2015, it emerged that two of the eight jihadists who struck Paris were residents of Brussels. Police on March 18 arrested Salah Abdeslam, a Belgian-born French national of Moroccan origin, for his role in the Paris attacks. He had been months on the run. On March 22, jihadists once again struck Brussels.
After the Paris attacks in November 2015, Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel said: “There is almost always a link with Molenbeek. That’s a gigantic problem. Apart from prevention, we should also focus more on repression.”
Interior Minister Jambon added:
“We don’t have control of the situation in Molenbeek at present. We have to step up efforts there as a next task. I see that [Molenbeek] Mayor Françoise Schepmans is also asking our help, and that the local police chief is willing to cooperate. We should join forces and ‘clean up’ the last bit that needs to be done, that is really necessary.”
The latest attack in Brussels, however, indicates that Belgian authorities still do not have the jihadist problem under control.
A Belgian counterterrorism official said that due to the small size of the Belgian government and the large numbers of ongoing investigations, virtually every police detective and military intelligence officer in the country was focused on international jihadi investigations. He added:
“We just don’t have the people to watch anything else and, frankly, we don’t have the infrastructure to properly investigate or monitor hundreds of individuals suspected of terror links, as well as pursue the hundreds of open files and investigations we have. It’s literally an impossible situation and, honestly, it’s very grave.”
An American intelligence official reportedly said that working with security officials there was like working with children:
“Even with the EU in general, there’s an infiltration of jihadists that’s been happening for two decades. And now they’re just starting to work on this. When we have to contact these people or send our guys over to talk to them, we’re essentially talking with people who are — I’m just going to put it bluntly — children. These are not pro-active, they don’t know what’s going on. They’re in such denial. It’s such a frightening thing to admit their country is being taken over.”
In November 2015, the New York Times published a scathing analysis of Belgian incompetence. It emerged that a month before the Paris attacks, Molenbeek Mayor Schepmans received a list with the names and addresses of 80 jihadists living in her district. The list included two brothers who would later take part in the November 13 attacks in Paris.
According to the Times, Schepmans said: “What was I supposed to do about them? It is not my job to track possible terrorists. That is the responsibility of the federal police.” The Timescontinued: “The federal police service, for its part, reports to the interior minister, Jan Jambon, a Flemish nationalist who has doubts about whether Belgium — divided among French, Dutch and German speakers — should even exist as a single state.”
Belgium, nestled between France, Germany, Luxembourg and the Netherlands, was established in 1830 to serve as a neutral buffer state between the geopolitical rivals, France and Germany. Belgium’s role as a buffer state effectively came to an end after the end of the Second World War and the subsequent move toward European integration. Over time, Brussels emerged as the de facto capital of the European Union.
For the past three decades, Belgium has faced an existential crisis due to growing antagonism between the speakers of Dutch and French. One observer wrote:
“The country operates on the basis of linguistic apartheid, which infects everything from public libraries to local and regional government, the education system, the political parties, national television, the newspapers, even football teams. There is no national narrative in Belgium, rather two opposing stories told in Dutch or French. The result is a dialogue of the deaf.”
This dysfunction extends to Belgian counter-terrorism. The New York Times observed:
“With three uneasily joined populations, Belgium has a dizzying plethora of institutions and political parties divided along linguistic, ideological or simply opportunistic lines, which are being blamed for the country’s seeming inability to get a handle on its terrorist threat.
“It was hardly difficult to find the two Molenbeek brothers before they helped kill 130 people in the Paris assaults: They lived just 100 yards from the borough’s City Hall, across a cobblestone market square in a subsidized borough-owned apartment clearly visible from the mayor’s second-floor corner office. A third brother worked for Ms. Schepmans’s borough administration.
“Much more difficult, however, was negotiating the labyrinthine pathways that connect — and also divide — a multitude of bodies responsible for security in Brussels, a capital city with six local police forces and a federal police service.
“Brussels has three Parliaments, 19 borough assemblies and the headquarters of two intelligence services — one military, one civilian — as well as a terrorism threat assessment unit whose chief, exhausted and demoralized by internecine turf battles, resigned in July but is still at his desk.
“Lost in the muddle were the two brothers, Ibrahim Abdeslam, who detonated a suicide vest in Paris, and Salah, who is the target of an extensive manhunt that has left the police flailing as they raid homes across the country.”
The language issue also affects integration. As a Washington Post analysis explains, “Many jobs in Brussels require knowledge of French, Flemish or Dutch, and now sometimes English, too, while most immigrants speak mostly Arabic and some French. That has blocked integration.”
The so-called Schengen Agreement, which allows for passport-free travel throughout most of the European Union, has allowed jihadists posing as migrants to enter Europe through Greece and make their way to northern Europe virtually undetected.
“Returned Syria fighters are a huge threat. They are dangerous predators roaming our streets. It is absolutely unbelievable that our governments allow them to return. And it is incredible that, once returned, they are not imprisoned.
“In the Netherlands, we have dozens of these returned jihadists. Our government allows most of them to freely walk our streets and refuses to lock them up. I demand that they be detained at once. Every government in the West, which refuses to do so, is a moral accessory if one of these monsters commits an atrocity.
“The government must also close our national borders. The European Union’s Schengen zone, where no border controls are allowed, is a catastrophe. The Belgian Moroccan Salah Abdeslam, the mastermind of last November’s bloodbath in Paris, travelled freely from Belgium to the Netherlands on multiple occasions last year.
Wilders concluded: “This is intolerable. Open borders are a huge safety risk. Our citizens are in mortal danger if we do not restore control over our own national borders.”
Soeren Kern is a Senior Fellow at the New York-based Gatestone Institute. He is also Senior Fellow for European Politics at the Madrid-based Grupo de Estudios Estratégicos / Strategic Studies Group. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter. His first book, Global Fire, will be out in 2016.