Three years after the Brussels attacks: The continued threat to Belgium of returning terrorists

Three years after the Brussels attacks: The continued threat to Belgium of returning terrorists
Almost 500 Belgians left to join jihadist groups in Syria and Iraq. According to the Belgian government, 125 have since returned to Belgium.

Hundreds of Belgians left to fight for jihadist groups in Syria and Iraq. But what happens when they return? And how big a threat do these returning “foreign fighters” pose to our safety and security? Just weeks ago, Belgium paid tribute to the victims from the terrorist attacks in Brussels on 22 March 2016. Several of the perpetrators had been to Syria to fight and returned before the attacks. Three years on, and the fight against terrorism is still high on Belgium’s and the EU’s agenda.

The recent case of Shamima Begum, a woman who left London as a 15-year-old to join the Islamic State (IS), has put the spotlight on the issue of returning of foreign fighters and their wives. Her case hit the international headlines after her third baby died in a Syrian refugee camp.

The UK home secretary was criticised for refusing to allow Begum to return to the UK with her child. When Begum was found in the refugee camp, she gave an interview in which she said did not regret joining IS.

While, thus far, there has been no similar cause celebre in Belgium, the issue of returning foreign fighters is just as pertinent here, possibly even more so. It is known that 150 of these foreign fighters have been convicted in Belgium for terrorism, most of them in absentia. In most cases, they were given low penalties (around 5 years) compared to the US (15-20 years).

“In general, the danger from these individuals should not be underestimated,” says Laurence Bindner, a founding partner of The JOS Project and expert on the dissemination of jihadist propaganda. “There is no sign that returnees renounced the ideology. On the contrary, some are actively recruiting in prison and upon their release, preparing the jihad of next generation.”

“Furthermore, they have received external training that can prove to be more lethal than home-grown terrorism,” she adds. “Conversely, those who don’t come back pose a problem in terms of surveillance by security services. Jihadism is not doomed to disappear, but will arguably remain there for decades. The West should address the polarisation that fosters the ideology.”

Conflicting figures

Belgium has been a source of foreign fighters and, indeed, has the highest per capita number of Western Europe. This has contributed substantially to the terrorist threat that returning foreign fighters pose.

Belgium, of course, has very painful memories of what all this means. On 22 March 2016, it got a horrible wakeup call when, in a coordinated attack, two nail bombs exploded in the departure hall of Brussels national airport. An hour later, a third bomb exploded inside a metro train passing through Maelbeek station. 32 people lost their lives and more than 300 were injured. Islamic State, which was responsible for the Paris attacks on 13 November 2015, claimed responsibility.

According to Belgian government figures, 498 people left from Belgium for the conflict zone in Syria and Iraq or tried to do so since the start of the Syrian civil war in 2011. About 413 arrived of whom 125 are believed to have since returned to Belgium. Not included in these official figures are 133 people considered by the authorities as potential foreign terrorist fighters and an estimated 137 children under the age of 12 present in the conflict zone.

Confession of a returning foreign fighter

One young returning foreign fighter spoke to The Brussels Times on the strict understanding that his identity not be revealed. He said that he went to Syria from his home in Vilvoorde in 2014, saying, “I did not know anyone there. The only one who guided me was Allah.”

He added that he ended up with a local Islamist militia and that he worked alongside several other Belgians, including some from Shariah4Belgium, a notorious Antwerp based Salafist group that is believed to have sent at least 97 people to Syria.

The 29-year-old said, “Yes, it was dangerous but, at the time, I believed passionately in what I was doing and have no particular regrets.” He denies taking part in any direct terrorist attacks and says that, after about two years, he decided to return to Belgium. “This is my home, where my family lives, and am I glad to be back. I am now trying to rebuild my life here.”

However, the Belgian Foreign Fighter Database (BFFD) estimates that the number of Belgians who went to join jihadist groups is actually much higher, possibly as high as 716. Of these, 142 have been killed. Only 2 are known to be detained in Iraq while, in Syria, 26 have been detained.

A source at the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism (ICCT), an independent think tank based in The Hague, explains that the difference could be partly due to the “broader scope” of the BFFD analysis whose data also includes children under the age of 12 who departed from Belgium. Out of the 716 people, the BFFD’s list contains at least 665 adults – 548 males and 117 females.

Anti-terrorism legislation

For a long time, Belgium’s counter terrorism efforts were hampered by the lack of a sufficient legal framework. However, this is no longer the case. Additions to Belgium’s very first terrorist law – introduced in 2003 – make it illegal to incite, to recruit or to instruct people to carry out terrorist acts and also penalises travel abroad with the intent to commit terrorism.

According to Europol figures, Belgium is ahead of other countries in the prosecution of jihadist terrorists. In 2015, its prosecutions represented about 60 per cent of all people tried in the 12 member states for which was data was available. However, figures also show that only 5 per cent of all terrorists convicted since 2014 were in jail as of July 2016.

Pieter Van Ostaeyen a Visiting Fellow at the European Foundation for Democracy (EFD), a Brussels-based policy institute, warns that IS is coming back to be an insurgency movement. He has investigated the backgrounds of Belgium’s foreign fighters, saying that while most of them are Belgian citizens, almost half are linked to Morocco, with Russia, perhaps surprisingly, coming second in foreign backgrounds.

He says that in Iraq, terrorist attacks are on the rise again. In Syria, there are still active cells, while IS is proving to be alive in Afghanistan, Nigeria, Somalia, Sinai and Philippines. IS is not now capable of organizing large-scale attacks like Paris and Brussels and has, he says, also lost most of its media capacity. But it is active on Telegram and on Twitter where there is still an abundance of sympathizers.

His conclusion? You cannot defeat an idea by reconquering territory. IS will persist, and will be back, he predicts.

Both Ostaeyen and Bindner recently participated in a high-level conference in Brussels on returning foreign fighters, a reflection of the increased attention the issue is currently receiving.

Bindner said that the IS in Syria and Iraq is moribund. This implies a decrease but not disappearance of the immediate external threat. Home-grown terrorism represents the biggest share in Europe now. The group’s defeat makes it less attractive, but its ideology remains.

The risk posed by the return of foreign fighter changes according to country. In France, for instance, it seems higher than elsewhere, says Bindner. In spite of predictions, though, the massive return of foreign fighters in France never occurred. Out of 1,300 French foreign fighters, around 350 people came back, including 82 minors, most of them before 2016.

Further comment comes from Willy Fautre, director of Human Rights Without Frontiers, a Brussels based rights NGO: “As a rule, Belgians who commit criminal offences in another country, including foreign fighters, are to be judged by the courts of said country. If they have come back to Belgium, it is legitimate for the security of the state and the Belgian population to investigate their activities while abroad and to start a prosecution procedure, if necessary. If no convincing evidence of criminal activities can be gathered, the state has the right to put them under surveillance.”

He points out that Mehdi Nemmouche, a French jihadist back from the battlefields in the Middle East, was recently sentenced to life imprisonment for shooting dead four people in a terrorist attack at the Jewish museum in Brussels on 24 May 2014.

The ICCT, in a policy brief, says the prevention is better than cure, adding, “Early signs of radicalisation have to be addressed in cooperation with a wide range of actors.” The EFD, respected for the work it has done on this issue, warns that, three years after the Brussels attacks, the threat has not gone away and that radicalisation leading to violent extremism and terrorism continues to pose serious challenges here and elsewhere. 

Belgian terrorist recruiter speaks out

The 73-year-old Shaykh Bassam Ayachi was arrested in the north of France in March 2018. The media portrayed him as “the oldest Belgian Jihadi”, as “the mentor of generations of Belgian Jihadi’s” and above all as “one of the main recruiters for Belgian foreign fighters.”

He settled in Belgium in 1992 after his restaurant in Aix-en-Provence went bankrupt, and founded his infamous “Centre Islamique Belge” (CIB) in the Brussels commune of Molenbeek. Soon this centre became known as a recruitment spot for the jihad abroad.

In Belgium, it is believed that Ayachi has never been prosecuted and a terrorist trial in Italy, where he was jailed in 2008, concluded with an acquittal.

When the first Belgian foreign fighters started to leave for the Syrian war, he actually pleaded against their departure. He was quoted as saying, “You should not ask a Belgian youngster raised with French fries and mayonnaise to get himself massacred there. The Syrians have enough fighters themselves.”

Bassam Ayachi reportedly kept on using Facebook to communicate with the home front and his followers, and even allowed a number of Belgian journalists to interview him.

One of his strongest statements about the recruitment of Western jihadis was when he told the Belgian weekly Knack, “For the Belgian fighters, I have but one message: “go home.” In earlier interviews he also spoke firmly about the abundant presence of foreign fighters in Syria.

By Martin Banks

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