Five years before he volunteered to walk the path that would lead him to Brussels airport, where he would extinguish his life for the glory of his creator, Brahim el-Bakraoui had been trapped behind a car on a highway in Belgium, firing a Kalashnikov at police officers who had blocked his escape. His god, back then, was cash: Just 24 years old when he was arrested in 2010, el-Bakraoui had held up a van carrying money for ATMs, leading to a shootout that claimed the life of a police officer. El-Bakraoui received a nine-year sentence, serving a little over five. He would emerge from prison along with his brother, Khalid el-Bakraoui, who had been sentenced to five years for a series of carjackings and opening fire with an assault rifle to evade arrest.
For the most part, this week’s carnage in Brussels has been read as part of a crisis of Islam in Europe: Jihadism, it is claimed, is being incubated in the decaying urban ghettos home to many of the continent’s Muslims. The idea is widespread: It serves both Europe’s right, seeking to eject immigrants from the polity, and the left, focused on Muslim disenfranchisement as a cause of rage.
The narrative is, at first glance, seductive. The Brussels municipality of Sint-Jans-Molenbeek, a one-time textile industry hub where just under 40 per cent of the population is Muslim, was home to many of the Brussels attackers, and to those who targeted Paris last year. Belgians make up, in population-adjusted terms, the highest number of foreign fighters in the Islamic State, even though just 6 per cent of its population is Muslim. Molenbeek is a leading contributor to this cohort.
The el-Bakraouis’ story, though, tells us that a more nuanced answer is needed. The two men radicalised in prison, discovering in jihadism a sense of agency and purpose that their lives as delinquent sons of working-class immigrants had lacked. Their childhood friend, Salah Abdeslam, the architect of last year’s IS attacks on Paris, would help them take the final steps towards becoming suicide bombers.
Figures released by Belgium’s government in January make clear that the notion of the ghetto as a medium in which jihadists breed doesn’t rest on robust empirical grounds. Molenbeek contributed 47 of the 451 identified Belgian jihadists in Syria and Iraq — a number identical to Brussels municipality, and followed in close order by relatively affluent, mixed Schaerbeek, with 31. Indeed, the data shows Brussels municipality produces more jihadists, in population-adjusted terms, than Molenbeek. Antwerp municipality, by no reckoning a Muslim ghetto, produ-ced 93 jihadists — almost twice as many as its notorious counterpart.
The second reason to question the narrative is that many European jihadists appear to have been exceptionally well-integrated. Salah Abdeslam and his brother, Brahim Abdeslam, who shot up the Bataclan theatre in Paris, were known for spending their time not at the mosque but at the notorious Les Beguines bar. Local residents told media that when everyone in the market would gather at the mosque to pray, the brothers could be seen on the terrace ledge of a building, smoking marijuana. Salah, in particular, had a long string of girlfriends.
Salah and his slain associate Abdelhamid Abaaoud also discovered jihadism in prison. In 2010, the two men were convicted of breaking into a parking garage to steal car stereos to sell for drugs. The next year, Salah was jailed again, for a drunken assault near the metro station. The two men were then arrested for armed robbery. Europe’s prison jihadists appear to see religious violence as a kind of redemption. Amedy Coulibaly, friend of Charlie Hebdo killers Said and Chérif Kouachi, illustrated this transformation in a video posted online after he killed four hostages: First, he wore the street-gangster’s leather jacket, then a military uniform and, finally, the white gown of the martyr.
Farhad Khosrokhavar, author of an authoritative study on France’s jihadists, casts this transformation as a kind of spiritual experience — “through jihadism,” he writes, “they transform the contempt of the others into fear”. For the European jihadist, this involves abandoning their real communities for an imaginary one, the global Nation of Islam.
Indeed, the seduction of violence for a higher cause has allowed jihadist networks to draw in converts seeking refuge from varied cultural discontents. Muriel Degauque, a Belgian convert to Islam, committed a suicide car-bomb attack against a US military convoy south of Baghdad, becoming the first Western-origin woman suicide bomber. Estimates suggest about a third of French jihadists fighting with the IS and al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra Front are converts.
The story of Jejoen Bontinck, a one-time contestant on a Belgian music talentshow, illustrates the dynamic. The son of former nightclub bouncer Dimitri Bontinck and his Nigerian-born Catholic wife Rose Bontinck, Jejoen converted to Islam while dating a Muslim girl. He was drawn to Islamist circles by the promise of adventure, and ended up fighting in Syria — only to return home terrified. Sharia4Belgium, led by incarcerated Islamist leader Fouad Belkacem, was among the key groups catering to the needs of this free-floating group of alienated young people. Belkacem, having served time for petty crime and drugs, unleashed street harassment on gay Muslims and women. In 2012, when authorities shut down Sharia4Belgium for hate speech, many of its members concluded the only course open to them was travelling to the IS. It is important to note that organisations like Sharia4Belgium had deeply adversarial relationships with the traditional religious leadership. The statistically small numbers of Muslims involved in jihad makes clear the cause does not enjoy wide backing.
To cast the problem of jihadism as one emerging from the wider Muslim community has three damaging consequences: First, it compels many ordinary Muslims, fearful of consequences for the community, to defend jihadists, breeding conspiratorialism and paranoia. It also allows Islamists to cast themselves as defenders of a vulnerable, besieged community. And it compromises anti-Islamist secularists, since critiques of a politics are read as attacks on a people.
Europe’s jihad crisis is not a problem of its Muslim communities. It is, instead, the outcome of wider cultural dislocations that are being preyed on by jihadist networks — networks that draw their inspiration from Islam, but from a version of it on the fringes of Muslim communities.
Public policy responses must make these distinctions or risk deepening the social fractures on which the European jihadist movement thrives.