Today we commemorate 3 years since twin blasts hit the main terminal of Zaventem international airport and another explosion struck the Maelbeek metro station in the city centre. The deadly bombings left dead 32 civilians with more than 300 hundred injured.
Four out of five attackers – brothers Ibrahim and Khalid el-Bakraoui, Najim Laachraoui and Mohamed Abrini – were Belgian citizens of Moroccan origin, accompanied by Osama Krayem, a Swedish national born to a Syrian family, all of them with proven Islamic State connections. Except for Krayem and Abrini who were taken into custody on April, 8, 2016, the rest died on the spot.
Two years ago, here in GLOBSEC we embarked on a multi-national project called From Criminals to Terrorists, and Back? which entailed collecting and analysing data on convicted terrorism arrestees from 11 EU countries. Looking at our GLOBSEC subset, consisting of more than 340 individuals, the Belgian case, unsurprisingly stands out. On several fronts, namely:
1. Family and friendships first.
Besides the longstanding and powerful childhood friendships of these individuals which clearly showed their strength in the Paris November 2015 and Brussels March 2016 attacks, our data points out few extraordinary cases when a whole family got involved in terrorism and thus seemingly play a more significant role. One of such examples is a story of Fatima Aberkan, the so-called “Mother Jihad”, a recruiter affiliated with Zerkani network. Her nickname probably was not just related to her four sons for whom (besides others) she had arranged a journey to the Syrian jihad. She is well-known to be among and surrounded by famous Belgian jihadist, cooking dinners for them and in case of emergency even providing them with a safe house – thus, hiding some of the most wanted terrorists, including the Paris and Brussels attackers. Worth mentioning, her brother was Abdelhouaid Aberkan, convicted notably for his role in the 2001 assassination of the Afghan anti-Taliban commander, Ahmed Shah Massoud. As a second example could be used the el-Bakraoui siblings themselves, when in addition to their active terrorist involvement, their cousin Oussama Atar, nicknamed as “Abou Ahmad” was involved as well. He had a central role in the Paris and Brussels attacks network while based in Syrian Raqqa.
2. Belgium as an exemplary country of the, crime-terror nexus phenomenon, seemingly full of former gangsters with no remorse.
It is nothing new that in Belgium simultaneously operate two longstanding jihad recruitment networks, i.e. Zerkani network, named after a charismatic leader Khalid Zerkani and Sharia4Belgium, based around Fouad Belkacem. Whereas the former functions in the Brussels neighbourhoods, the latter operates in the Belgian province of Antwerp. Zerkani ring is well known for primarily recruiting criminals and gangsters, later using the criminally obtained resources to finance his recruits going to Syria or Iraq. At the same time, our subset is mostly made up of the individuals with extensive criminal pasts, ranging from petty crimes, like robbery or fraud to severe criminality including involuntary manslaughter, making Belgium an exemplary country of the crime-terror nexus phenomenon. Most of the individuals were affiliated with either Zerkani network or Sharia4Belgium, hardly convinced radicals without any prior FTFs experience. Some of them were actively spreading the propaganda, others were recruiters and bunch of others active planners, coordinators and the perpetrators of the terrorist attacks. These would rarely, if at all, later plead guilty in court or indicate any remorse during or after the trial.
3. A troubling return of foreign terrorist fighters
What also makes this small country big and significant in this respect is its contribution with the largest number of the ISIS fighters to Syria per capita of any European Union Member State. According to data available, since late 2012, when the war in Syria broke out, more than 600 Belgians left the country. Of those who reached the conflict zone, at least 100 have returned and 129 were reportedly killed. In terms of recruitment, Sharia4Belgium remains the most important actor with reportedly 101 individuals whose departure was implicated. The Zerkani network can be held responsible for 85 departures. 16 out of 20 (80%) are known to be FTFs, most often fighting on behalf of the ISIS in Syria. To come back to the Brussels attackers, three are known to be previously fighting in Syria with one being detained by the Turkish officials along the borders with Syria.
Recently, President Trump insisted that Europe repatriate its fighters and now it´s the Western countries´ turn to figure out what to do with the thousands of their citizens who joined the Islamic State, and now they seek to come back as the militant group loses the last of its territory in Syria. The case of the hundreds of children born in camps and prisons, predominantly held by U.S.-backed Kurdish militias, to parents that had joined ISIS is another particularly troubling priority for most European countries.
In Belgium, children younger than 10 are considered to have the right to immediately return to Belgium, while those between the ages of 10 and 18 would be reviewed on a case-by-case basis. Though this was ordered by a court, a clash of interests between the court and the government becomes a question of the repatriation of children´ mothers. And of all other Belgian nationals detained in the region. There appears to be a generally supported idea of establishing an international court in the region to prosecute Islamic State members. Unfortunately, with this idea comes several concerns identified by Pieter van Ostaeyen, an expert on jihadi groups. That it is the time it takes to have such a tribunal in place, the lack of appropriate laws to deal with ISIS members in coordination with other nations involved and the issue of the significant number of Belgian ISIS members that have been tried in absentia, and most of these have been sentenced to prison.
However, the fate and identity of foreigners detained have not yet been clarified. Nor has been an unsolved risk, rightly pointed out by Thomas Renard, associated with returnees of 2013-2015 who will be due to relatively short sentences (in Belgium ranging from 3 to 5 years) soon released. And so, the EU member states, among them Belgium, are left in an awkward position. Clearly, that is a situation no one wants to be in.