The problem of jihadists in Belgium
Explosions at Brussels Airport and a metro station near European Union institutions in central Brussels killed more than 30 people, injured dozens more and marked a new — and worrisome — development in the war between jihadists and the West.
The Islamic State (ISIS) has claimed responsibility for the March 22nd bomb attacks in Brussels.
In the aftermath of the November 13th Paris terrorist attacks, as investigators gathered information on the identity of the attackers, one thing that appeared evident was the central role played by Brussels. Belgian anti-terror police recently arrested a jihadist they believe was the mastermind of last November’s killings in Paris.
As early as January 2015 we had warned of the dangers that returning European jihadis posed to the security of Europe. Belgium, with a population of 9 million, is believed to have the highest proportion of jihadis. Sources close to French and Belgian intelligence services revealed to this reporter that there could be up to 1,000 Islamist “sleepers” in Belgium, waiting for the right moment to strike.
More than half of them — possibly as many as 800 — are believed to be combat-hardened jihadists returning from Syria or Iraq where they received military training and battlefield experience with ISIS.
The perpetrators of the Paris attacks, in which 130 people were killed, came from a cell in Belgium.
How did Brussels, not too long ago a sleepy little town where outside of eurocrats shuffling paperwork between Brussels, Strasbourg and Luxembourg, nothing much happened, find itself in the spotlight of international Islamist terrorism?
In January, police killed two men and arrested a third during a raid in southern Belgium. The suspects had been under surveillance and authorities were convinced they were about to move into the action phase of an operation when police launched a pre-emptive move.
Some Muslim Europeans who have links to ISIS are second- or third-generation Belgians, making it hard for authorities to detect them.
Belgium is one of Europe’s smallest countries yet one with the most strategic targets for a would-be terrorist. The unusually high number of diplomats accredited to Belgium and the many strategic targets concentrated over a relatively small area make the country an ideal location for terrorists to strike.
Brussels is home to the European Union and the plethora of agencies and organisations affiliated with the 28-member group. The Belgian capital is also home to NATO, and SHAPE — the Supreme Headquarters for Allied Powers in Europe — is a short car ride south of Brussels.
As such, Brussels hosts three times more foreign-accredited diplomats than any other European capital with embassies having separate staff accredited to Belgium, NATO and the European Union.
The physical size of the country offers an additional benefit to terrorists who can be beyond Belgium’s boundaries in less than two hours by car. Although most of Europe’s country borders have disappeared, national police forces cannot cross into another country unless invited to do so.
The jihadists used Brussels as a base because they found the country’s security services less efficient than its European neighbours’.
Communicating through Twitter, the Islamists arrogantly mocked Belgian security services, calling them “stupid” and “idiotic”. That outlook may have been revised, however, since the Belgian anti-terrorist unit thwarted a possible attack in January and the government of Prime Minister Charles Michel pledged an extra $440 million to fight ISIS.
Reliable sources, who asked not to be identified, told The Arab Weekly there could be 400-800 returning Belgian jihadis from Iraq and Syria, plus the “veterans” of al-Qaeda and Iraq.
The number could rise to as many as 1,000 “people of concern”, the source said.
In neighbouring France, the numbers are thought to be even higher with about 1,500 fighters returning from the wars in the Middle East. Officials said about 50 sleeper cells could be operating in Germany.
As previous incidents have demonstrated, large numbers are not needed to create havoc and mayhem. At the height of the clashes between British authorities and the Irish Republican Army (IRA), it is believed that no more than 150 people were involved on the IRA side. They managed to keep almost the entire British Army tied up for months at a time.