Stories of youths travelling to Syria to participate in the struggle against the Assad regime continue to make headlines in Belgium. Like that of 18-year-old J.B., a once average teenager who converted to Islam at the age of 15 before radicalising under the influence of the recently dissolved organization Sharia4Belgium. In February of this year, J. travelled to Cairo to study Islam. Or so he told his parents. Before long, J. found himself in a training camp somewhere in Syria, where his passport and money were confiscated. After hearing about his son’s fate, J.B.’s father travelled to Syria in an attempt to bring him back home. At one point he found himself in the hands of a radical group and was interrogated for several hours on suspicion of spying for the United States. And while he escaped with his life, he was unable to locate J.B. and bring him back to Belgium.
Determining the exact number of young Belgians that have travelled to Syria remains a challenge. The International Centre for the Study of Radicalization (ICRS) estimates, for example, that there are between 30 and 85 Belgian “jihadists” are currently in the country. It is also believed that at least 12 Belgian jihadists have so far lost their lives in Syria. According to Edwin Bakker, director of the Hague-based Centre for Terrorism and Counterterrorism, this makes Belgium in relative terms “number one when it comes to the number of youths fighting in Syria”. What is known, however, is that most of the Belgian jihadists come from the Brussels-Vilvoorde-Antwerp axis and are aged between 15 and 30.
Falcons of Shams
According to research undertaken by Brahim Laytouss, imam and director of Islamic Development and Research Academy (IDARA), many of the Belgian jihadists end up with the “Lions of Sunnah”-battalion. This battalion operates under the wings of the “Falcons of Shams” brigade (Suqur al-Sham), led by Abdel Rahman Ayachi (see also here). Abdel Rahman is the son of the Syrian-born and Brussels-based Bassam Ayachi. Also known as “the imam with the blue eyes”, Bassam was once head of the radical (and now dissolved) Belgian Islamic Centre (Centre Islamique Belge). He also consecrated the marriage between Malika Al Aroud and Abdessatar Dahmane, one of the suicide bombers responsible for the death of Afghan leader Massoud on September 9, 2001, just two days before the attacks of 9/11.
In an attempt to stop Belgian youths travelling to Syria, authorities have launched a number of initiatives at both the national and local level. Joëlle Milquet, Belgium’s Minister of the Interior, set up “Task Force Syria”, an initiative that brings together experts from different government departments. A Syria action plan was discussed by the Belgian government (however, it was not put in place). The mayors of the three cities mostly affected (Antwerp, Malines and Vilvoorde) also announced a number of initiatives aimed at curbing the radicalisation of local youths. Resto du Tawhid, a charitable organization that distributes food to homeless people in Brussels, saw its permission revoked after accusations of inciting people to travel to Syria.
On April 16, authorities in Belgium raided 48 houses as part of an investigation into the extremist Muslim organization Sharia4Belgium. In the latest edition of the European Union’s Terrorism Situation and Trend Report, Europol warned that the ideology spread by Sharia4Belgium and other groups had directly contributed to the radicalisation and engagement of EU citizens in the Syrian conflict. According to the authorities, at least 33 people with links to Sharia4Belgium were either in or on their way to Syria. As a result of the raid, 6 people were arrested, including Fouad Belkacem, the former spokesperson of Sharia4Belgium. In response, Sheikh Omar Bakri Mohammed, the ideologist behind Sharia-movements worldwide, called the arrest “a dangerous precedent” before adding that Belgium was “playing with fire”.
Commenting on the operation, the Belgian prosecutor’s office was quick to emphasize that not all youths travelling to Syria could be labelled as jihadists with ill intentions. Yet concerns nevertheless remain that those who made the journey infused with jihadist ideology could potentially return home even more radicalized as a result of their experiences. It is feared that further radicalization, combined with combat experience and expertise in weapons and explosives, could make for a dangerous mix in the future. Be it in Belgium or elsewhere in Europe.
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