March 23, 2016

Terrorist attacks in Belgium on Tuesday, which killed thirty-four people and injured more than a hundred, brought into focus the complex network of jihadists in the country. Brussels is widely regarded as the jihadist epicentre of Europe, home to neighbourhoods that breed violence and extremism, existing a stone throw away from the European parliament. On Tuesday, Belgium suffered the worst attack in its territory since 1945. However, the attacks, claimed by ISIS, was no surprise. Since many years, Belgium finds itself in the centre of practically all investigations over the terrorist networks of jihadists in Europe. From Mehdi Nemmouche, major suspect of the killings in the Brussels’ Jewish museum in May 2014, to the bloody attacks on 22 March 2016, the routes of these and other attacks intermingle and come back often to the small streets of Molenbeek, a neighbourhood in Brussels.

The name of Molenbeek became globally known last year. 2015 was a fast year for Belgium. In January 2015, one week after the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris, the Belgian police forces commenced on a series of operations in the country. In the city of Verviers, they dismantled a terrorist cell that was preparing for an attack. On August 21, Ayoub El-Khazzani, a Moroccan of 26 who lived in Molenbeek, attempted to open fire on passengers on a Thalys train en route to Paris from Amsterdam. The successful intervention of passengers for restraining the attacker prevented a carnage. And finally, the Paris attacks of November 2015 were prepared, to a great degree, in the Belgian capital. The arrest of Salah Abdeslam five days ago in Brussels allowed investigators to obtain new clues about the deep-rooted structure and network of jihadists in Belgium. In proportion to its population, more fighters joined ISIS from Belgium than from any other European country. According to the last statistics by the Belgian Interior Ministry, more than 400 people have left for Syria, and 117 have returned.

Belgium has a long history with terrorism. In 1969, when a grenade wounded two employees of one Israeli airline in Brussel, two decades of anti-semitic attacks followed. The nature and impact of the attacks were different; but they were all marked with a deep-rooted anti-semitism. A grenade fired over Jewish kids in Antwerp in 1980, a car filled with bombs exploding in front of a synagogue in the same city in 1981, an attack with a machine gun in the entrance of a synagogue in Brussels in 1982… Jewish people in Belgium were attacked for a long time. The airport of Zaventem, attacked this Tuesday, was already targeted in 1979, again with grenades, three Palestinian terrorists targeted passengers disembarking from a flight from Israel – twelve people were injured.

After the anti-semitic terror of 1960s, the atmosphere of terrorism in Belgium did not fade. It could be claimed that a particularly favourable environment for religious radicalism was developing in Belgium. In 1960s, Saudi Arabia began a work of proselytism in Brussels, as it financed a grand mosque and an Islamic culture centre. It is this context that started a plethora of extremist organisations, profiting from Belgium’s central place in the European continent and also from an immigrant population socially disfavoured and left in some underdeveloped neighbourhoods. Passivity of authorities also fuelled the rise of extremism.

Two days after the attacks on 11 September 2001, Belgium was put in the centre of international terrorism. Commandant Massoud, principal enemy of Taliban in Afghanistan, was assassinated in a bomb attack in Afghanistan. His two assassins were Tunisian. Their names were Dahmane Abd El-Sattar and Bouraoui El-Ouaer, two Belgian residents. The former was married to Malika el-Aroud who seems to have been strongly influeced and who is found in the heart of Belgian jihadist circles. She married, after the death of El-Sattar, to Moez Garsallaoui, a Belgo-Tunisian who was one of the masterminds behind the project of channeling European fighters to Pakistan’s tribal areas. Garsallaou has notably trained Mohamed Merah, the murderer of Montauban and Toulouse. El-Aroud was condemned to eight years in prison in 2010 for having activated a jihadist network.

In 2000s, jihadist preachers prospered in Belgium. There was first the Belgian Islamic Centre, a salafo-jihadist mosque founded by “cheikh” Bassam Ayachi. This Franco-Syrian has linked different generations of Belgian jihadists. He inspired numerous departures for Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, the destinations varied according to the jihad of the moment. His son, Raphaël Gendron, a French convert who lives in Molenbeek, helped his father through chatrooms. The forerunners of cyber-jihad finally went to Syria in 2013, a year after their small group was dismantled by Belgian police. Aged 70, Bassam Hayachi also went to Syria, he is the oldest Belgian jihadist. He is the head of a unit opposing ISIS. Since the closure of Belgian Islamic Centre, a clandestine mosque, Loqman de Molenbeek, attended among others by Ayoub El-Khazzani, has taken over.

At the same time, on the streets of Molenbeek or in the environs of Gare du Nord de Bruxelles, where he distributes food to the homeless, it is not unusual to see Jean-Louis, a converted local propagandist, hero of several television reports. He was condemned in January 2016 to ten years in prison for directing terrorist links and encouraging two high-school students to go to Syria. The tribunal noted the “harmful role of self-appointed gurus such as Jean-Louis Denis to young people looking for idols and who have a limited knowledge of their religion.”

A new core salafist organisation edged forward in 2010s: Sharia4Belgium. This small group originated from Antwerp and made the headlines with their protests demanding an end to democracy, establishment of sharia law, and capital punishment for homosexuals. Led by Fouad Belkacem, its militants provoked a riot in front of the police station of Molenbeek in 2012, in reaction to the questioning of a woman in niqab. The group went underground after its dissolution in 2013. According to the Belgian court, ten percent of the jihadists in Belgium who left for the Syrian front came from Sharia4Belgium. Belkacem, tried in 2014 along with forty-six other members, was condemned to twelve years in prison in February 2015 for his role in “the terrorist organisation.” Abdelhamid Abbaoud, a key member of November 13 attacks in Paris, has also passed through the ranks of this organisation, embodying the continuity of these networks in the Belgian jihadism.