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Belgium’s Muslims head to Syria ‘out of despair’

Forensics police at work in Verviers, eastern Belgium, on January 15, 2015, where two men were killed during an anti-terrorist operation.
Forensics police at work in Verviers, eastern Belgium, on January 15, 2015, where two men were killed during an anti-terrorist operation. AFP
3 min

Belgium, where police on Thursday killed two alleged militants after a gun battle amid a nationwide anti-terror operation, is Europe’s biggest contributor of jihadists to Middle Eastern battlefields.


The shootout, in the eastern Belgian town of Verviers, was part of what Brussels said was an operation to foil an imminent terrorist plot, raising fresh alarm just days after 17 people were killed in Islamist attacks on satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo and a Jewish supermarket in Paris.

Belgian police killed two men who opened fire on them during one of about a dozen raids across the country against an Islamist group that federal prosecutors said was about to launch "terrorist attacks on a grand scale".

In the wake of last week's Paris attacks, attention has focused on the threat of radicalised Muslims in France returning from Syria. But data shows that Belgium is the European country providing the highest number of citizens per capita to fight with Syrian rebels in recent years.

The London-based International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR) said that in terms of sheer numbers, Belgium is third only to much larger France and Britain, with nearly 300 of its citizens travelling to Syria tofight between late 2011 and December 2013, according to the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.

Brussels estimates that 170 Belgians are currently fighting in Syria, with another 40 believed to have been killed in action.

Foreign Minister Didier Reynders said that all those returning from fighting abroad were under surveillance, part of ongoing investigations.

High youth unemployment

"We have seen Belgium at the centre of things for quite some time," said Matthew Levitt at the US-based Washington Institute, who regularly travels to Belgium to study the issue.

Brussels is best known as the headquarters of the European Union. But away from the glass and steel buildings of EU institutions, joblessness among 18-to-25 year olds runs as high as 50 percent in the commune of Molenbeek, across the city's industrial-era canal.

While it is difficult to say exactly why so many young Belgian Muslims are heading to Syria, the seeds of anger and disenfranchisement are sown in the city's poorer quarters, according to former justice minister Laurette Onkelinx.

"Despair is certainly one of the key explanations," she told public broadcaster RTBF. "When you are in despair, when you have no future, you are much easier prey to preachers of hatred."

Belgium has one of the highest percentages in the industrialised world of young people with nothing to do; meaning they are not in school, training courses, or employed, according to the OECD.

Many children of immigrants from North Africa, whose parents came to work in Belgium's steel plants in the 1960s, feel marginalized now that the car plants and factories where they would have been likely to find work two decades ago have closed.

Many also face discrimination for being Muslim, the largest minority religion in Roman Catholic Belgium. Muslims make up about 6 percent of the population. Others were made to feel more ostracized by the extreme right Vlaams Belang party, which promoted intolerance of Muslims in the northern Flanders region.

Inspired by radical Islamic preachers in Britain, the group Sharia4Belgium emerged in 2010, encouraging Belgian Muslims to leave to fight in Syria, although its leader is in prison and the group has now disbanded.

"The fact that a lot of youngsters prefer to live under bombs than in 'hospitable, warm Flanders' is another proof of the government's [failures]. Anywhere seems better than Belgium," the group wrote on its website.


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