How Belgium deals with returning jihadist fighters
Thursday, 22 March 2018
Two years after the terrorist attacks in Brussels, Belgium has learned some hard-won lessons and is doing relatively well in dealing with the threat of returning fighters. But there is still a risk of radicalization in Belgian prisons and the integration of released prisoners in society is a major challenge. According to researchers Rik Coolsaet and Tomas Renard at the Brussels-based Egmont Institute, Belgium was the first European country which already in 2012 warned other countries that radicalized youngsters had started travelling in growing numbers to join terrorist organisations.
The federal counterterrorism centre has defined about 500 people from Belgium as foreign terrorist fighters. Out of them more than 400 people actually reached Syria and Iraq and 80 % among them were young men between 20 and 30. This made Belgium the country with the highest ratio of terrorist fighters in Europe.
Since then, and after the defeat of the Islamic State, Belgian authorities have sought to craft a coherent response to the threat of returning fighters. According to the authors, the return rate up to now is about 30 %, with fighters having returned in different waves. About half of those still left in combat zones are assumed to have been killed.
However, about 150 Belgian fighters are still thought to be alive – some of them prisoners in Iraq and Syria – and a number of these could still return. There are also about 130 Belgian children, mostly born there, who will return sooner or later.
Definition of terrorist activities
A multi-agency approach involving a broad range of actors among intelligence, enforcement, and social services has been developed and put down on paper in recent years.
Furthermore, the Belgian penal code was revised in 2015 as regards the definition of a terrorist crime. Travelling to join a terrorist organisation abroad, providing or receiving terrorist training or funding a terrorist organisation abroad are now considered terrorist crimes.
Anyone returning from the battle fields in Syria and Iraq now faces pre-trial detention and a three–five-year (and sometimes longer) prison sentence. In January 2018, there were 100 foreign terrorist fighters, of which 44 were returnees, in Belgium’s 32 prisons.
In jail, most of them are spread among the general prison population with individual security measures and monitoring, as well as constant assessment of radicalization behaviour by trained staff and special units. This poses a dilemma for the prison authorities since radicalized detainees can influence other prisoners.
Dispersal or separation
According to the authors, the preferred regime in Belgium is dispersal among the general prison population. However, dangerous individuals are screened by the prison administration’s so-called CellExtremism unit and can be separated from other inmates though not kept isolated. The prisons of Hasselt and Ittre have 20 places each for such cases but only 22 places were used in January 2018.
Inmates are offered tailor-made disengagement programmes and probation measures to facilitate their return to society. Security services and local agencies receive information from the prison authorities to ensure continued monitoring and adequate counselling. But they caution that this is still work in progress, and there are still several weaknesses.
Prisons, for instance, are still breeding grounds for extremist ideologies. Although the majority of detainees are not religiously radicalized, CellExtremism is currently monitoring 237 detainees. It is estimated that a significant proportion of returnees might leave prison without leaving violent extremism behind.
“The transition to post-prison life remains one of the most challenging dimensions of the Belgian response to returnees,” according to the researchers.
Crime-terror nexus in Belgium
Another worrying problem is the connections between criminality and terrorism. In Belgium, like elsewhere, the authorities have witnessed criminals joining terror groups in Syria. There are also documented interactions between terrorist networks and criminal ones, for instance to acquire weapons or falsified identity documents.
An on-going study by two British researchers, Peter Neumann and Rajan Basra, aims at mapping the links between criminality and terrorism in all EU member states. The first results for Belgium and Luxembourg were presented last week at the Egmont Institute.
According to the writers, criminals and terrorists are often recruited from the same pool of people, not the least in prisons. A few charismatic persons managed to recruit hundreds of fighters in Belgium. Approximately half or more of those recruited had a criminal background. They see jihadism as a kind of redemption and justify crimes against “non-believers” as a means to fund terrorism.
Asked about the role of religion in the radicalisation of criminals, Neuman replied that a distinction should be made between religious knowledge, which almost is non-existent among them, and a new-born religious identity.
“Radicalisation isn’t a crime,” said a Brussels prosecutor. “We have to respect the rules of the game once a detainee is released and cannot limit his freedom. In Belgium we have chosen the right direction by focusing on local structures and task forces that can intervene at the first sign of violent extremism.”