From Brussels to Damascus and Back?

Islamic Jihad Militants pray during a Rally in Gaza city
Islamic Jihad Militants pray during a Rally in Gaza city. Photo: Suhair Karam/IRIN.

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.

Belgium: Time to Move Forward

Working on common features. Photo: Everjean/flickr

No more caretaker government, demands the King of Belgium. After almost one year of failed attempts to reach an agreement between the French and Dutch-speaking parties, King Albert II has officially asked Elio di Rupo, a French-speaking socialist, to lead a government.

For too long both communities have been struggling over the country’s institutional set up. Several negotiators attempted to break the deadlock, but without success. Now everyone, including the King, is tired of the impasse and Elio di Rupo will receive a second chance to break the cycle.

Last year he failed to create a government coalition, but his role will be slightly different this time. Until now the King had only appointed politicians to find a consensus for a new government, the so-called “preformateurs”. Now he actually asked Elio di Rupo to  form his own government and become Prime Minister. A new strategy that triggers a paradoxical feeling: either the situation will soon be solved, or things will get really desperate.

Even if Elio di Rupo succeeds, the real problem will yet have to be solved. The separatist Flemish Nationalist party, which won the largest share of votes in last year’s general elections, will not simply give up on achieving more autonomy. They argue that they are tired of subsidizing the poorest part of the country, French-speaking Wallonia. A state reform appears inevitable.

Business and Finance

Prisons and Profit

Wallens Ridge State Prison /Photo: dombrassey, flickr
Wallens Ridge State Prison /Photo: dombrassey, flickr

Once upon a time, prisoners used spoons stolen at lunch to dig their way to freedom. Today’s prisoners seem to have found more comfortable methods. They prefer private helicopters to fly elegantly to freedom, as did one of Belgium’s most dangerous criminals, Ashraf Sekkaki, together with two other inmates. Apparently the aircraft was in the prison courtyard for five minutes without even encountering a guard.

Since the procedure was not as cheap as old-school methods, the trio was probably in dire need of money: Only a week after their escape, the three were suspected of having robbed a bank, a gas station and two storage facilities – all within two hours.

Their helicopter escape was not an original idea though. It seems to be a general trend in Europe, with 14 cases in the last eight years, mostly in Belgium, France and Greece. The three Belgian fugitives add to 36 others in their country alone – since the beginning of this year.

European prison services blame not only lax controls at tourist chopper rentals, but also their lack of funding at correctional facilities. There’s not even enough money to erect simple iron cables to stop choppers from landing.

Policymakers could be tempted to look across the Atlantic for money-saving, and even profit-making, solutions. With more than 2 million prisoners (more than 1 percent of the adult population) the US has found a way to create a recession-proof multimillion dollar industry out of incarcerations.

Reuters last week reported that the share price of Corrections Corporation of America has more than doubled since March. The company, which provides about half of America’s private ‘corrections solutions’ (or prisons, as they were once called) and has 77,000 beds on offer, cuts a profit of about $22 per inmate per day. Incoming CEO Damon Hininger says he would “love the opportunity” to take some of the 40,000 prisoners that must be transferred from overcrowded California prisons.

In other cases, the industry has taken a more direct approach to increasing its client base:

The Guardian reported that “[T]wo judges in Pennsylvania were convicted of jailing some 2,000 children in exchange for bribes from private prison companies.” Some of the offenses were “so trivial that some of them weren’t even crimes.”

With such worrying prospects, I hope that Belgian prison services will find other ways to deal with their lack of funding.