New Bel­gian ar­rest amid ter­ror sweep

Re­cent cases show na­tion’s rad­i­cal­iza­tion woes

SundayXtra - - WORLD - By Michael Birn­baum

BRUSSELS — The Bel­gian teenager was de­ter­mined to join the ji­hadist fight in Syria — so much so that, after his na­tion’s au­thor­i­ties rolled up an al­leged mil­i­tant cell Fri­day, he was speed­ing up his plans to de­part for war.

Bel­gian se­cu­rity ser­vices came for him at his high school later in the day. Now he is sit­ting in de­ten­tion, wait­ing for a judge to de­ter­mine his fate, au­thor­i­ties say. It was just the lat­est ex­am­ple of Bel­gium’s alarm­ing prob­lem with rad­i­cal­iza­tion, which has put the na­tion of 11 mil­lion at the fore­front of Europe’s bat­tle against home­grown ter­ror­ism in­flu­enced by far­away Is­lamist war­riors.

Euro­peans have been shocked by 10 days of vi­o­lent drama this month that un­der­lined the threat in their midst. It started when two brothers claim­ing ties to al-Qaida killed 12 peo­ple at a Paris satir­i­cal newsweekly and con­tin­ued last week with the ar­rests of dozens of peo­ple ac­cused of plot­ting ter­ror in France, Bel­gium and Ger­many.

More than 350 Bel­gians have gone to Syria to fight, the high­est num­ber per capita of any Euro­pean coun­try. Like other Euro­pean na­tions, Bel­gium is ex­pe­ri­enc­ing the con­se­quences of what crit­ics call decades of in­ef­fec­tive­ness in in­te­grat­ing im­mi­grants, in­clud­ing many Mus­lims. But the coun­try faces par­tic­u­lar chal­lenges be­cause it has long been starkly di­vided it­self, with bit­ter ri­val­ries be­tween a Dutch-speak­ing north and a French-speak­ing south. That has hurt the co­her­ence of the gov­ern­ment’s re­sponse and ex­ac­er­bated the dif­fi­cul­ties im­mi­grants have had fit­ting in.

Bel­gian troops were de­ployed across the na­tion Satur­day to pro­tect po­ten­tial ter­ror­ist tar­gets, a rare mea­sure that came after au­thor­i­ties ar­rested 13 peo­ple in na­tion­wide raids that be­gan Thurs­day aimed at fore­stalling an at­tack. Greek me­dia re­ported Satur­day au­thor­i­ties there had de­tained four more peo­ple con­nected to that con­spir­acy. Bel­gian in­ves­ti­ga­tors later said they did not be­lieve there was a link be­tween the al­leged ex­trem­ists in the two coun­tries.

Many frus­trated mem­bers of Bel­gium’s Mus­lim com­mu­nity say the best long-term pro­tec­tion for the na­tion would come from im­proved ef­forts to in­te­grate vul­ner­a­ble im­mi­grant groups, not from added se­cu­rity mea­sures.

They point to such steps as a 2012 ban on the full-face veil as in­creas­ing alien­ation.

“It’s OK that so­ci­ety has prob­lems with rad­i­cal­iza­tion. This is cor­rect,” said Mo­hamed Achaibi, vice-pres­i­dent of the Mus­lim Ex­ec­u­tive of Bel­gium, the of­fi­cial um­brella or­ga­ni­za­tion for the coun­try’s re­li­gious com­mu­nity. “But why does so­ci­ety have prob­lems with Mus­lim sym­bols? Why does so­ci­ety have prob­lems with mosques in re­gions or in ci­ties?”

Pros­e­cu­tors say mem­bers of the cell bro­ken up in re­cent days were plan­ning to kill po­lice of­fi­cers and pos­si­bly were within hours of car­ry­ing out an at­tack. Au­thor­i­ties said they dis­cov­ered heavy weaponry, ex­plo­sives, phoney po­lice uni­forms and walki­etalkies be­long­ing to the group in a safe house near the Ger­man bor­der. Two of the sus­pects were killed after they opened fire on po­lice mov­ing in on them.

Bel­gian au­thor­i­ties were al­ready pur­su­ing a ma­jor case against mem­bers of a group called Shari­a4Bel­gium, in the coun­try’s largest-ever ter­ror­ism trial. Pros­e­cu­tors al­lege 46 peo­ple worked as mem­bers of a ter­ror or­ga­ni­za­tion to fun­nel fight­ers to Syria. A ver­dict in that case was pushed to next month in the wake of the Paris shoot­ings.

Shari­a4Bel­gium is a key fac­tor in Bel­gium’s emer­gence as a source of rad­i­cal fight­ers headed for the Mid­dle East. An­a­lysts say it cre­ated a lo­gis­ti­cal glide path for would-be ji­hadists who went from Bel­gium’s rolling coun­try­side to the arid deserts of Syria. Even many who did not go with the group’s as­sis­tance were in­spired by friends who had trav­elled with the help of Shari­a4Bel­gium and stayed in touch through Face­book and other so­cial net­works. A charis­matic street preacher named Fouad Belka­cem spear­headed the group’s ef­forts, pros­e­cu­tors say.

“They were us­ing Face­book, us­ing pic­tures of the villa they were liv­ing in” in Syria, said EU coun­tert­er­ror­ism co- or­di­na­tor Gilles de Ker­chove, who said he blamed Shari­a4Bel­gium for the high rate at which Bel­gian cit­i­zens had de­parted for Syria. “They tried to ad­ver­tise it was the ul­ti­mate place, with swimming pools and easy liv­ing.”

Au­thor­i­ties be­lieve about 100 of the Bel­gians who have gone to fight in Syria have since re­turned home. Some of them were among the group of al­leged plot­ters ar­rested in re­cent days.

But the prob­lem of dis­af­fected Mus­lim youth in Bel­gium goes well beyond one un­der­ground group.

Mus­lims make up six per cent of Bel­gian so­ci­ety, and some say they have faced long-stand­ing chal­lenges within the coun­try’s majority Catholic cul­ture — even those whose fam­i­lies have lived here for gen­er­a­tions. Job­less­ness is far higher among Bel­gians with im­mi­grant back­grounds, of­fer­ing scant hope for the fu­ture.

Shari­a4Bel­gium high­lighted le­gal mea­sures such as the 2012 ban on the full-face veil as ex­am­ples of the so­ci­ety’s in­tol­er­ance for Mus­lims. Re­li­gious com­mu­ni­ties have also run into dif­fi­cul­ties in be­ing al­lowed to carry out rit­ual sac­ri­fices of an­i­mals dur­ing im­por­tant an­nual hol­i­days.

Bel­gium’s di­vi­sion be­tween Dutc­hand French-speak­ers has led to a patch­work of poli­cies on ed­u­ca­tion, so­cial wel­fare and even se­cu­rity and polic­ing. At the en­trance to the na­tional par­lia­ment, there are two de­fib­ril­la­tors, in­tended for use in case of heart at­tacks — one la­belled in French and the other in Dutch.

Most of those who left for Syria came from Dutch-speak­ing Flan­ders, where a right-wing Flem­ish na­tion­al­ist party has been as­cen­dent for years. Crit­ics say the na­tion­al­ists leave lit­tle room for peo­ple with dif­fer­ent iden­ti­ties. The Flem­ish part of the coun­try has banned head scarves in many schools.

Com­pound­ing the prob­lem, few imams in Bel­gium speak Dutch — most speak French or Turk­ish in ad­di­tion to Ara­bic. So Mus­lim youth whose first lan­guage is Dutch of­ten turn to the In­ter­net if they have ques­tions about their re­li­gious iden­tity.

On the In­ter­net, “It’s not the Is­lam we have in western Europe,” Achaibi said, but in­stead a less in­clu­sive and less tol­er­ant ver­sion. But among 165 mosques in Flan­ders, he said, only 10 imams speak Dutch, a prob­lem he has been striv­ing to fix.

An­a­lysts say Mus­lim youth who feel cut off both from broader Bel­gian so­ci­ety and their an­ces­tors’ cul­tures are es­pe­cially vul­ner­a­ble to rad­i­cal­iza­tion.

“The Is­lamic State is giv­ing them what the Bel­gian gov­ern­ment can’t give them — iden­tity, struc­ture,” said Mon­tasser AlDe’emeh of the Univer­sity of An­twerp, who is re­search­ing Bel­gian fight­ers in Syria. “They don’t feel Moroc­can or Bel­gian. They don’t feel part of ei­ther so­ci­ety.”

And once some peo­ple start go­ing to the war, the phe­nom­e­non quickly builds on it­self.

“If you play foot­ball ev­ery day in the park and two of your friends go to Syria, you stay in touch with them on Face­book,” AlDe’emeh said.

“They say, ‘It’s bor­ing there in Bel­gium. Here we have nice rivers and Kalash­nikovs. Here in Syria we are somebody.’ In Bel­gium, they’re no­body.”

Ini­tially, an­a­lysts say, the Bel­gian gov­ern­ment looked the other way when peo­ple started go­ing to Syria. That was at a dif­fer­ent stage of the con­flict, when it ap­peared to be an ex­ten­sion of the Arab Spring prodemoc­racy rev­o­lu­tions. Ini­tially, many Euro­peans trav­elled to Syria not out of a de­sire for ji­had but sim­ply be­cause they loathed its long­time leader, Pres­i­dent Bashar al-As­sad and wanted to con­trib­ute to his ouster.

Then the con­flict evolved, with an in­creas­ing role played by Is­lamist mil­i­tants seek­ing to build a caliphate — but Euro­peans kept flow­ing there. Bel­gian au­thor­i­ties are wor­ried some will come back rad­i­cal­ized and launch vi­o­lent at­tacks at home. That has prompted them to take far tougher mea­sures to pre­vent peo­ple from head­ing to the fight.

Fears yet another Bel­gian youth was about to leave for Syria mo­ti­vated in­ves­ti­ga­tors to swoop in on the teenager who was de­tained Fri­day, said Hans Bonte, the mayor of Vil­vo­orde, the Dutch-speak­ing Brussels sub­urb where the 18-year- old went to school.

“We saw him rad­i­cal­iz­ing,” Bonte said. “We saw it by fol­low­ing the com­mu­ni­ca­tions on the In­ter­net, the way he was talk­ing on Face­book, in the class­room.”

“Ev­ery­thing was ar­ranged” for his de­par­ture,” Bonte said. “It’s clear that the things hap­pen­ing in Paris and the things hap­pen­ing here ac­cel­er­ated his think­ing.”

The de­ten­tion, he said, “is not the first one, and I fear it won’t be the last one.”

GEERT VANDEN WIJNGAERT / THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

A Bel­gian sol­dier pa­trols near the of­fice of the prime min­is­ter in Brussels Satur­day amid height­ened se­cu­rity at pos­si­ble tar­gets.

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