Radical Islam: a growing concern in Belgium

Source: Global Risk Insights

Belgium has been on the radar of anti-terrorist operations since the November 2015 attacks in Paris. In fact, several militants part of the cell that planned and perpetrated those assaults had ties to networks in Brussels. However, the radical Islamist issue in Belgium dates back to the late 1990s and the early 2000s when Sunni extremist groups started developing tight knight networks in densely populated areas. With the emergence of the Islamic State and its high-impact propaganda strategy Belgium became the western European country with the highest per-capita number of nationals having travelled to Syria and Iraq to support radical Islamist insurgents. Aside from those directly supporting the Islamic State, federal authorities are increasingly concerned by the impact radical Islamist ideologies will have on the long-term security and stability of the country.

The expanding attraction of Sunni extremism

A recent study released covering the fight against the radicalisation in Brussels’ Molenbeek-Saint-Jean district comes as a stern reminder of the deteriorating situation. The number of those holding sympathetic views toward radical Islam is growing exponentially in Molenbeek. This is a key element leading to heightened concerns over the growing power of attraction Sunni extremist ideologies have on the local youth. Efforts to implement de-radicalisation projects have so far had very little results and members of the local community have increasingly turned toward a fundamentalist approach of the Islamic religion. This is generating a substantial social challenge to local mosques as well as to local authorities. The issue in Molenbeek-Saint-Jean echoes similar concerns regarding the expansion of radical Islamist networks throughout the Flemish region of the country.

Growing numbers of radical Islamist supporters

The Belgian police released in April 2017, information pertaining to the number of people classified as supporters of Sunni extremist groups. In 2010, the number was of 1,875 people and in 2017 this figure reached 18,884 people. A reason for this exponential increase is due to the fact that authorities broadened the meaning of “support” to include cyber-activities that may be indirectly linked to pro-Islamic State websites. However, these numbers show a dramatic increase in the group that may be subject to radical Islamist propaganda. Coupled with the expansion of Sunni extremist ideologies in specific urban districts of the country, this situation leads to an elevated security risk associated with the potential creation of new small and dynamic militant cells with Belgian and/or transnational links.

The evolving risk posed by returnees

The growing numbers of potential supporters of radical Islamist ideologies should be closely matched with the number of militants who have explicitly shown their interest in supporting Sunni extremist groups operating in Syria and Iraq. According to the latest figures, 121 Belgian nationals that fought in the Middle East made their way back to the country. In addition, 82 others have been detained as they were trying to leave. These militants are a potential vector of propaganda and may spur local cells to plan home-grown terrorist attacks as well as to provide material, human or financial support to transnational terrorist groups.

The Islamist-criminality nexus

As demonstrated by recent terrorist attacks that took place in throughout Western Europe, the Islamist-criminality nexus is leading to fresh security challenges for local authorities. The exponential expansion of Sunni extremist ideologies in Belgian districts with traditionally higher crime rates and dense smuggling networks highlights long-term security challenges. Those inspired by Islamic State propaganda and planning attacks are likely to benefit from a relative freedom of action and access to firearms. As the threat of single-assailant attacks generates fresh security challenges, the expansion of radical Islamist networks in Belgium will almost certainly have a long lasting negative impact on the country’s and the region security situation.