Belgium has in recent years produced some of the largest numbers of foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq, both in absolute and relative terms of any European country. This article aims to take a critical look at the numbers of Belgian fighters active with the Islamic State and other militant groups in Iraq and Syria, and explain why and how Belgium has become a leading exporter of jihadist fighters.
Number of Fighters
The Belgian government’s latest estimate of the number of Belgian fighters in the Syrian-Iraqi conflict is about 380 (HLN, April 7). However, independent research by the Belgian historian and Arabist Pieter Van Ostaeyen and this author found that 482 people are known to have at least departed to the conflict, including those who were stopped before they reached their goal, were killed or who have since returned. This includes some people within the ranks of moderate rebel and even pro-regime groups—both in Syria and Iraq—but most of these fighters can nonetheless be considered as jihadists who sought to join Sunni Islamist militant groups. Most of the Belgians, perhaps 70 percent by mid-2014, appear to have joined the Islamic State, the most prominent extremist force in Iraq and Syria.  However, affiliations have often changed with time. For instance, many Belgian fighters in Syria, before summer 2013, initially joined the then independent militia Majlis Shura al-Mujahideen. When this became part of the Islamic State, many switched to Jabhat al-Nusra, the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda, before gradually switching back to the Islamic State.
The difference between the official count and independent estimates—which is not unique to the Belgian figures—is probably because governments tend to limit their data to juridically sound cases, while independent research relies more heavily on social media. On the one hand, using social media can lead to overestimating numbers. For instance, in the first months of the Syrian civil war, many people put Syrian cities as their place of residence on their Facebook accounts, but these later turned out to be mere rhetorical expression of support. On the other hand, some Belgian foreign fighters were only known once their deaths were announced. For example, when two Belgians recently died in suicide attacks—“Abu Abdallah al-Belgiki,” who died on April 24 near the Iraqi-Jordanian border, and “Abu Bakr al-Belgiki,” on March 11 near Ramadi in Iraq—they had no prior publicly available social media footprint (Twitter, March 11).
However, even allowing for such discrepancies, a total number of nearly 500 Belgians who have joined—or tried to join—the Syrian jihad seems plausible. Even the Belgian government’s lower estimate of 380 would give Belgium the largest number of jihadists per capita, with 33.9 fighters per one million inhabitants. In Western Europe, only Sweden (30.6) and Denmark (26.3) come close to that, and only when calculated at their highest estimates. High end estimates for Germany (22.3) and France (18.1) show far fewer relative numbers of jihadists, and only high end estimates of 2,000 fighters for the UK (31.0) result in a comparable rate (Daily Telegraph, November 24, 2014).  Strikingly, on the entire European continent, Belgium’s number of foreign fighters per capita is only surpassed by two Muslim-majority Balkan states, both of which have a recent history of war and related jihadist activity: Bosnia and Herzegovina with 87.2 fighters per million inhabitants, and Kosovo with a stunning 157.9.
Underlining the high levels of sympathy for jihadist groups, in an Italian study of two million posts on Twitter and Facebook, the only countries showing a higher proportional level of popular online support for the Islamic State than Belgium were Qatar and Pakistan (Guardian, November 28, 2014).
History of Extremism
Although it has not so far suffered any major attacks, Belgian Islamist radicals have long played a significant role in such events elsewhere. For instance, the murderers of the Afghan anti-Taliban fighter Ahmad Shah Massoud, who was deliberately killed just days before the September 11, 2001 attacks, started their deadly mission in Brussels (Le Monde, April 19, 2004). Similarly, a cell of the Groupe Islamique Marocain Combattant (GICM) operating from the small Belgian border town of Maaseik was later implicated in the terrorist attack on March 11, 2004 in Madrid (El Mundo, July 11, 2006). In addition, the Belgian-born Muslim convert Muriel Degauque became the first known female Western Islamist suicide bomber in Iraq on November 9, 2005 (New York Times, December 6, 2005).
The prominent role of Belgium in such plots is probably due to its status as an ideal logistical hub, due to its geography, and the fact that it has a substantial and rather diverse Muslim population in which planners and executors of attacks could easily hide and recruit. Indeed, there is often speculation that Islamists avoided committing large scale attacks on Belgian soil because they needed the country as an organizational base. During the 1990s and 2000s, Islamist extremism in Belgium involved many different groups, currents and orientations, in which no one organization or individual dominated. In addition, most such activities happened underground, without a significant base of support in the mainstream Muslim community. Despite this, however, the current generation of jihadist fighters have different roots.
The most significant cause of Belgium’s current jihadist problem—and the large number of Belgian fighters with the Islamic State—was the establishment of the radical group Shariah4Belgium in 2010. This was founded as an offshoot of the radical al-Muhajiroun and Islam4UK movements in Britain, which are led by Omar Bakri and Anjem Choudary, but was completely separate from other radical networks in Belgium. In the first years of its existence, Shariah4Belgium was not considered a dangerous group. Its core activities were “dawa” sessions in Belgian cities—mainly trying to convert non-Muslims by preaching in public places—and protests against what the group considered as violations of Muslims’ rights. As these activities were so overt and outspoken, it was widely assumed that Shariah4Belgium was only a nuisance and would never commit violent acts. 
Because Shariah4Belgium was not taken seriously by the authorities, the group found it easy to recruit. Many young people were attracted by its message of resistance, and its appeal was increased further by some unfortunate policy measures—such as a ban on wearing headscarves in public schools in the city of Antwerp—which made the group’s message seem more relevant and credible. As a result, with its rather simple discourse, which also covered the need for Muslims to implement Shari’a and to live under an Islamic state, Shariah4Belgium radicalized a large number of followers in very short time. And when authorities finally started to act against it at the end of 2012, most of these people had already been radicalized to the point of no return. However, at this exact time, when the group’s leaders such as its Belgian founder Fouad Belkacem were imprisoned and its overt activities became impossible, the Syrian war presented itself as an alternative outlet for radicals; young people who had absorbed the group’s message that Belgian society did not want them and that it offered no space for Islam, saw the Syrian jihad as a worthy way out.
Little is known about the foreign connections that led the first members Shariah4Belgium to Syria, but probably the Syrian-born Omar Bakri—with whom Shariah4Belgium member Nabil Kasmi had very close contacts from the group’s early days—facilitated such linkages. These first recruits immediately formed a separate Belgian faction within the existing Majlis Shura al-Mujahideen. That militia was led by Amr al-Absi, a Syrian extremist who is now considered one of the key people in the establishment of the Islamic State (al-Akhbar, January 14, 2014). The group’s Belgian faction was headed by a very young amir from the town of Vilvoorde, Houssien Elouassaki, and it was later also joined by people from the Netherlands and France (De Morgen, June 8, 2013).
Networks linked to earlier generations of jihadists—for instance, related to conflicts in North Africa—seem to hardly play a role in connecting young Belgians with radical Syrian groups. However, there are examples of people from old networks infiltrating the new ones. One example is the convicted GICM terrorist Abdelkader Hakimi, who tried to get in touch with the new generation, and whose associate Rachid Iba has been fighting in Syria with the newer generation of radicals and has links to Shariah4Belgium.  But up to now, there are no indications that figures like them have risen again to important positions, and links between the first generation of Belgian jihadists and the current fighters with the Islamic State seem thin or non-existent.
This disconnect between the earlier generation of mostly foreign born fighters and the youngsters drawn to the Syrian jihad via Shariah4Belgium is underlined by a recent survey of 50 Belgian fighters by the author, which found that unlike first-generation jihadists, only 18 percent of these fighters was born abroad (Het Laatste Nieuws, November 27, 2014). The study also found that almost 80 percent of them have roots within the Moroccan community, the largest group of Muslims in Belgium. Overall, their socio-economic backgrounds are quite diverse, underlining that their radicalization was not primarily a result of deprivation or due to having a problematic or criminal past. For instance, the Elouassaki brothers from Vilvoorde, of whom three have left for Syria, had a history of problems with the law; Hakim Elouassaki, for instance, during a routine identity check when he was 16 years old, wounded three policeman so badly that they had to be hospitalized.  By contrast, the three brothers of the Mezroui family, also of Moroccan descent, who also left for Syria, had previously lived with their parents in a luxurious villa in the upscale Antwerp suburb of Kapellen (Het Laatste Nieuws, April 18, 2013). And similarly, in the eulogy that jihadist comrades published after the death of Said El Morabit, it was claimed that he had quit a leading job in an important insurance company to go to the Syrian jihad (Het Laatste Nieuws, April 3, 2014). Of the eight percent of this sample who were Muslim converts, most were adopted or raised in ethnically mixed families, underlining the role that identity issues can play in causing radicalization.
One consequence of the fact that the Shariah4Belgium–linked jihadists had previously typically operated openly in Belgium, is that they still were surrounded by a wide range of friends when they left for jihad (in contrast to the previous generation’s underground networks, which operated only within already radicalized circles). This has enabled them to keep in touch with less radicalized people at home, while the ease of internet communication has made it possible to provide those back home with a mix of adventurous stories and religious indoctrination. One result of this is that a considerable number of young Muslims in Belgium are both exposed to such messages and consider the jihadists’ acts—or at least their motivations—to be acceptable, even when atrocities have come to light. This development is probably the biggest danger that current foreign fighters pose for the future; that their activities in Syria and Iraq are creating a broad base of jihadist supporters at home whose own actions may unleash a true “clash of civilizations” within Western societies themselves.
Guy Van Vlierden is a journalist for the Belgian newspaper Het Laatste Nieuws, specializing in issues relating to terrorist and extremism.
1. For more details, see: https://emmejihad.wordpress.com/2014/08/23/270-belgians-in-the-ranks-of-the-islamic-state/.
2. Full sources for the international numbers of foreign fighters can be found at http://thecountofemmejihad.wordpress.com.
3. “‘Sharia4Belgium’”: An Atypical but Extremist Salafist Organization Steps on the Belgian Stage,” ESIS, May 21, 2010, http://www.esisc.org/publications/analyses/sharia4belgium-an-atypical-but-extremist-salafist-organisation-steps-on-the-belgian-stage.
4. For further details, see: https://emmejihad.wordpress.com/2014/06/07/convicted-european-top-terrorist-abdelkader-hakimi-has-traveled-to-syria/.
5. For further details, see: https://emmejihad.wordpress.com/2013/05/24/phone-tap-of-belgian-syria-fighter-revealing-brussels-terrorist-plot/.