Belgium’s jihadi connection

Belgium’s jihadi connection

Multiple terrorist plots over the last year have been traced back to Belgium, a tiny country that supplies the largest number of foreign fighters to the Islamic State in proportion to its population. What’s going on?

This undated image made available in the Islamic State's English-language magazine Dabiq, shows Belgian national Abdelhamid Abaaoud. Abaaoud, the child of Moroccan immigrants who grew up in the Belgian capital’s Molenbeek-Saint-Jean neighborhood, was identified by French authorities on Monday Nov. 16, 2015, as the presumed mastermind of the terror attacks last Friday in Paris that killed over a hundred people and injured hundreds more. (Militant Photo via AP)
This undated image made available in the Islamic State’s English-language magazine Dabiq, shows Belgian national Abdelhamid Abaaoud. (Source: AP)


May 24, 2014: French jihadi Mehdi Nemmouche killed 4 at a Jewish museum in Brussels
Jan 13, 2015: Weapons used in Jan 7 Charlie Hebdo attack traced to Brussels; bought by Amedy Coulibaly who attacked Jewish supermarket on Jan 9
Jan 14, 2015: Belgian police fired upon in Verviers; shootout ends with two suspects killed, one arrested — all jihadis recently back from Syria
Aug 23, 2015: Heavily armed Moroccan Ayoub El Khazzani overpowered by passengers aboard Amsterdam-Paris train; said he found his weapons in a Brussels park
Nov 13, 2015: At least five of those connected with the Paris attacks live(d) in Molenbeek, Brussels

The chief planner of the Paris attacks, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, was Belgian. He frequently met with the Abdeslam brothers Salah and Ibrahim at a bar in Brussels’s Molenbeek neighbourhood where they all lived. They were often joined by Hamza Attou and Mohamed Amri, who drove Salah Abdeslam back to Belgium from Paris after the attacks. Bilal Hadfi, who was killed, had a home, friends and relatives in Brussels.

The weapons used in the Charlie Hebdo and Brussels Jewish museum attacks, and in the attempted attack on a train from Amsterdam to Paris, were procured in Molenbeek. The Moroccan origin man involved in the last lived in Brussels, from where he boarded the train.


Researcher Pieter Van Ostaeyen estimated in October that at least 516 Belgians had fought for the Islamic State at some point. Out of Belgium’s 11 million people, around 640,000 are believed to be Muslim, which means one in every 1,260 Belgian Muslims has been associated with the IS — the largest contributor to the organisation per capita.

The heart of militant Islamism in Belgium is in Molenbeek, Brussels. About 1 lakh people live in Molenbeek, some 40% of whom have roots overseas. A large number of immigrants are Muslim. In the Muslim ghettos, employment rates are high (25%) and the delivery of state services inefficient. Molenbeek has perhaps two dozen mosques, it is relatively easy to procure illegal weapons in the neighbourhood, and there have been some reports of gangs attacking non-Muslims. Following the Paris attacks, Belgian Interior Minister Jan Jambon conceded: “We don’t have control of the situation in Molenbeek at present.”

Writing in The Guardian, Kristof Clerix of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists listed five reasons why Belgium is attractive to terrorists. They were Belgium’s location and size, the anonymity and some individual sympathisers that Brussels offers to terrorists, the presence of “imported” imams and Wahhabi Islam, the relative ease of buying illegal weapons, and Belgium’s relatively small state security apparatus, which has only around 600 employees.

There is also a history of Islamism: several commentators have recalled that the Tunisian terrorists who killed Ahmad Shah Massoud two days before 9/11 had Belgian passports. In 2008, an American research nonprofit reported that the Belgian city of Verviers — where police killed two jihadis ahead of a planned terror attack in January this year — had many Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas partisans. Closer to the present, the first of the expected terror strikes in Europe by returning jihadis was at the Jewish Museum in Brussels.