The extremist strategy that thrives on chaos and disorder
Published 26/03/2016 | 02:30
Anyone familiar with Brussels knows it is really several cities in one. There is the affluent Brussels that houses the shiny headquarters of the EU, Nato and other international bodies.
And there is the Brussels of districts like Molenbeek, the hardscrabble area that was home both to the bombers that struck the Belgian capital this week and many of those who attacked Paris last November. Just days before the blasts that targeted Brussels' airport and metro system on Tuesday, killing dozens, police arrested Salah Abdeslam, the main fugitive from the Paris attacks, in Molenbeek where he had apparently managed to hide out for months.
The west Brussels borough is a densely populated area blighted by unemployment, particularly among the children or grandchildren of North African immigrants, most of them from Morocco, who made the area their home several decades ago. Disaffection has pulled some of the district's youth into criminality, others have been drawn to Isil and other extremist groups.
According to Belgian government data, of the identified Belgian jihadists who have made their way to Syria and Iraq, 47 were from Molenbeek.
But while Molenbeek has been the focus of media headlines, the story of why so many of its young men have chosen a radical path is but one part of a much bigger extremism challenge faced by Belgium.
According to some estimates, the country of 11 million has supplied the highest per capita number of foreign fighters to Syria of any EU member state. More than 450 out of a population that includes less than half a million Muslims have gone to Syria, most of whom have joined Isil. More than 80 Belgians have been killed there. One of those was Sabri Ben Ali, who was 19 when he disappeared from his home in summer 2013. Months after, his parents received a phone call saying he had died in Syria. I met his mother, Saliha, in Brussels last year. She is now a member of Les Parents Concernés (The Affected Parents), a support group that meets regularly in Molenbeek to discuss the growing challenge of radicalised youth in their midst. She talked about how extremist recruiters operating both online and in the city's disadvantaged neighbourhoods helped fuse a youthful search for identity and a tendency to rebel with jihadism.
"We have to offer a convincing counter-narrative to the one the extremists are using, we need to explain to our vulnerable children that this is a distortion of our religion" she told me. "Otherwise we will lose many more."
Belgium's extremist problem is not new. The country's two most active networks - Sharia4Belgium (some 80 of whose former members are in Syria and Iraq) and another centred around a militant named Khalid Zerkani, which included some of the Paris attackers - have been operating for years. When Sharia4Belgium leader Fouad Belkacem was jailed for 12 years last year, the judge declared the organisation, which initially gained notoriety through aggressive street preaching, a "terrorist group".
Pieter Van Ostaeyen, a Belgian who researches the country's jihadist currents, says such networks have long tried to exploit the sense that Belgium treats its Muslim population as second-class citizens.
Now Isil uses the same strategy. "It thrives on chaos and disorder and, in Belgium, hopes to drive a wedge between Muslims and non-Muslims," he wrote this week. "In a way, they hope for what Samuel Huntington described as the clash of civilisations.
"And by creating a sphere of Islamophobia, they seek to create a fertile breeding ground."
The challenge for the Belgian authorities - and governments in other European countries targeted by homegrown extremists - is how to tackle the threat posed by such elements without alienating the wider Muslim population through heavy-handed tactics or rhetoric that gives the impression all Muslims are under suspicion.
Such an approach will only bolster the extremist narrative used to recruit already disaffected youth. Some European leaders have already fallen into this trap, speaking of the continent being "at war" - a message that chimes with the propaganda churned out by Isil and its ilk.
What is needed instead is a greater focus on developing coordination between national security and intelligence services across Europe. The attacks of the past year have shown that too much slips through the net because such cooperation is not happening as much as it should.
That, along with the grassroots work done by Saliha Ben Ali and others like her trying to counter extremist messaging within their communities, is key.