Much has been made of the fact that Belgium has a higher number of jihadists relative to its population than any other European country.
According to recent statements by Interior Minister Jan Jambon, the number of Belgian “foreign fighters” reached around 470 individuals as of January 2016. Flanders and Brussels would each account for roughly 45 percent of the departures, the rest coming from the southern region of Wallonia. (This tends to invalidate the assumption that social-economic grievances and poverty may be driving radicalization, since the economy in the north of the country is significantly stronger.) As my colleague Rik Coolsaet has documented in a new report, among these 470 individuals who have attempted to go to Syria, roughly 60 didn’t manage to reach Syrian territory in the first place; some 80 have presumably been killed; and about 190 are still believed to be operating in Syria or Iraq. While some 130 of them have gone and have now returned to Belgium.
And most of these recruits have joined ISIS? Are they still going?
Approximately 70 percent of those whose affiliation could be established with a reasonable degree of certainty has been fighting under the ISIS banner. Overall, the monthly average of departures seems to have gradually dropped from its peak of some fifteen per month (in 2012-2013) to an average of five per month during the year 2015.
In view of this week’s attacks, are the 130 jihadists who have returned to Belgium increasingly viewed as a threat? Are they ticking time bombs?
No one can answer this question with specific data. It’s not measurable. We know that about a third of those who have returned have been arrested and jailed. I’m inclined to say that most of the remaining individuals don’t pose a threat. The problem is, even if most of them pose no threat at all and only regret this dark episode of their life, a small minority could still cause a lot of damage as we witnessed on March 22. So we must remain vigilant, in spite of the difficulty of trying to monitor all these people. Having at one’s disposal an Excel spreadsheet with roughly one thousand names is one thing, but the next one is to know how to manage this database.
What do we know about the thousand people on the watch list?
Apart from the 470 known foreign fighters, there are individuals in various stages of radicalization: some of them have shown obvious symptoms of being radicalized, some have only expressed a wish to go to Syria or Iraq. Among those who have left Belgian territory, some are only assumed to be fighting for IS, Jabhat al-Nusra or other Jihadi groups. Others are known to have reached Syria or Iraq for that specific purpose. Also, some others have left Syria or Iraq but have not been identified as back in Belgium yet.
We cannot say that Belgian jihadists fit a general profile. There are men and women, individuals and groups (sometimes couples or whole families), older and very young people. Abdelhamid Abaaoud’s younger brother Younes was thirteen when he went to Syria—and I think was then considered the youngest case in 2013. That being said, the age range of foreign fighters from Belgium is typically twenty to twenty-four. The education level is often below that of the average population. Foreign fighters with college degrees exist, but they constitute a small minority, as far as Belgium is concerned. Most were known to police and intelligence before their departure. Belgians with Moroccan family background are significantly overrepresented on the list (more than 80 percent), while converts to Islam would represent less than 10 percent. [Continue reading…]