Brussels: The Murderous Jihadis Hiding in Plain Sight

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Two injured women at the scene of explosions at Zaventem airport near Brussels on March 22. The author writes that the bomb attacks in Brussels clearly show how the country's jihadi problem is far broader than a few known individuals. Ketevan Kardava/Courtesy of 1tv.ge/reuters

This article first appeared on the Tony Blair Faith Foundation site.

While there has been no claim of responsibility, the seemingly coordinated attacks in Brussels, targeting the Zaventem airport and the Maelbeek metro station, which have killed at least 34 people, highlight the threat Belgium faces from jihadi militants.

A toxic mix of Salafi-jihadism, high numbers of foreign fighters and easy access to arms has seen the country become an important base for radicals to launch attacks in Europe.

The investigation into the Paris attacks threw a spotlight on this challenge. The last remaining suspect wanted for those attacks, Salah Abdeslam, was arrested in Brussels on March 18. The manhunt that culminated in his eventual arrest highlighted the relative ease with which highly publicized jihadis were able to hide in the city right under the eyes of the security services.

While investigators have welcomed his capture, describing him as being "worth his weight in gold," the attacks in Brussels show how the country's jihadi problem is broader than a few known individuals.

Abdeslam is described as having changed his mind about blowing himself up during the Paris attacks, but investigators have indicated that he was planning further attacks from Brussels. Today's bombings will no doubt lead to further scrutiny of these statements.

Belgian authorities have been increasingly concerned over the growing threat of domestic jihadi violence since the Charlie Hebdo attack in January 2015. Amedy Coulibaly, the gunman behind the attack on a Parisian Jewish grocery store in January 2015, obtained weapons used by himself and the Kouachi brothers through connections in Brussels.

Parts of Belgium have surprisingly lax gun control. The suburb of Molenbeek is notorious for a black market in assault weapons, which is blamed on smugglers who used the Yugoslavia conflict to build a considerable armory.

Molenbeek, where Abdeslam was captured, is also no stranger to jihadi activity. One of the men jailed for the 2004 Madrid train bombings was from Molenbeek, while Ayoub el-Khazzani, the Moroccan who attempted to open fire on a Paris-bound train in August 2015 before being tackled to the ground by bystanders, is believed to have lived there for a time.

The area has strong Salafi roots, attributable in part to Saudi Arabia's construction of mosques and the influence of Gulf-trained clerics in the largely Moroccan municipality. Deputy Mayor Ahmed El Khannouss says radicalism is not suspected to thrive in Molenbeek's 22 mosques, but rather in the more informal network of Salafi meeting places and prayer sites.

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The Islamic State militant group (ISIS) has recruited successfully in Belgium, and it has proportionally the largest number of foreign fighters traveling to Iraq and Syria, with current estimates standing at over 500. Official estimates from the Belgian government believe that around 120 of those have now returned to Belgium, and the recent events suggest they remain committed to violent jihad once home.

Many Belgian foreign fighters are linked to Sharia4Belgium, a group originating in Antwerp that recruits young people to fight in Syria and advocates for the imposition of domestic Sharia law. Its leader, Fouad Belkacem, was imprisoned for 12 years last year. His trial found that members of the group not only went to fight with ISIS in Syria but also for Al-Qaeda's affiliate, the Nusra Front, as well as jihadi groups in Yemen. The judge specifically cited Belkacem's influence "for the radicalization of young men to prepare them for Salafi combat."

This variety of different jihadi groups' presence in Belgium was demonstrated by nationwide raids in June 2015. Police arrested 16 people following intelligence reports about an attack on Belgian soil. Among those arrested were suspects with links to the Nusra Front and the Islamic Caucasus Emirate, and who had traveled to Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan to receive training.

Abdelhamid Abaaoud, said to be the leader of the Paris attacks, was an ISIS militant in Syria and was interviewed in an issue of the group's English-language online propaganda magazine, Dabiq. He described Belgium as being a "member of the crusader coalition attacking the Muslims," and said he and his accomplices were able to return from Syria to Belgium, obtain weapons and set up a safe house as they sought to carry out attacks.

But Belgium's long association with jihadism shows that the ideology and the number of groups involved goes even deeper. The focus on ISIS and the Belgian links to the Paris attacks overshadows a wider issue; the spread and incubation of the Salafi-jihadi ideology.

Though welcome, the dismantling of ISIS alone in Belgium, or the rest of Europe for that matter, will be dealing with only a symptom, not the root cause of the problem.

Mubaraz Ahmed is an analyst at the Tony Blair Foundation.