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Islamic State group's expansion in Europe

The Brussels attacks illustrate the failure of European security and intelligence forces to confront and eliminate the threat of radicalised Islamist extremists

Said Shehata , Monday 28 Mar 2016
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The setbacks of the Islamic State group (Daesh) in Syria and Iraq, under intensive air strikes by the international coalition led by the US, and Russian air strikes, forced Daesh to change tactics and launch attacks in Europe and the US for several reasons.

First, Daesh will to take revenge on any country that contributes to those air strikes. Second, it does not like to lose its image amongst its supporters and potential recruits as a strong and unstoppable power.

Last, but not least, it speeds its aims to build a global Islamic Caliphate that should not be confined to Syria and Iraq.

This article will analyse the reasons behind attacking Belgium and the significance of attacking countries other than France and Britain.

There are several overlapping reasons for striking Belgium now. First, it was reported that arresting Salah Abdel Salam might reveal future operations by Islamic State group cells in Europe. So the decision was taken to strike before those attacks were disrupted by security forces. In addition, it might be revenge for arresting the main suspect of the Paris attacks.

Police revealed that Abdel Salam provided information and his radical collaborators feared that their cover had been blown. They could not wait longer and took a quick decision. Their plans and determination were revealed in hitting two main targets, leading to 31 killed and more than 300 injured.

Second, Belgium sent more fighters per capita to the Islamic State group in both Syria and Iraq than any other European country. It is estimated that about 300 radical Islamists from Belgium left to Syria and Iraq, and some of them returned.

Those returnees included some of the Paris and Belgium attackers, such as Abdel Salam. So there are extremists who are inspired by Islamic State group ideology and are willing to launch attacks on European soil. Their being in Syria and Iraq helped communicate this extreme ideology, alongside other means.

It should be noted that it is easy to radicalise people in Belgium in streets, cafes and inside mosques in the absence of security mechanisms or laws to stop this recruitment process.

Third, Molenbeek area, which is close to Brussels, is a hotbed for radicals and extremism in Europe. Unemployment is high and reaches more than 40 percent. It is estimated that half of its population are Muslims and in some parts 70-80 percent are Muslims. Many suspects of both the Paris and Belgium attacks came from this area. Abdel Salam himself was hiding for long time in this area before his arrest 18 March. Sheikh Bassam Ayachi, who was considered a radical preacher in Molenbeek, talked about marginalisation of Muslims in the area.

This desperate situation led some to turn to religion while they were in prison, and they were radicalised by hatred against Western society.

Some Muslims do not feel a belonging to their countries of origin, such as Morocco, or their new home, Belgium. The crisis of identity and feeling of marginalisation is one of the main factors for Molenbeek becoming a jihadi heaven in Europe.

Fourth, the failure of Belgian security and intelligence forces is staggering. Turkey deported one of the two brothers (Brahim El-Bakraoui) to the Netherlands last summer because he wanted to cross to Syria through Turkey in order to join Daesh. Turkey warned Belgium that he was a foreign fighter. He was not arrested because there was no evidence of him committing terrorist acts or joining the Islamic State group. Hence he was not considered a security threat to Belgium. It is hard to understand the outlook of the Belgian authorities in this regard. While the Belgian interior and justice ministers handed in their resignations, admitting serious negligence in the handling of radical Islamists, their resignations were rejected.

In addition, Europol, the EU police agency, is not efficient in tackling radical Islamists. The director of Europol said that 5,000 suspects have been radicalised in Europe and the network of jihadists in Europe is more extensive than expected.

In this context, the French president, Francois Hollande, called for better intelligence sharing between EU member states. But it can be argued in defence of security forces in Belgium that their number is 12,000 and they are stretched to protect many important organisations, such as the EU, NATO and other institutions.

Fifth, Belgium was known to be on the list of targets by the Islamic State group. The video that was released by the group confirms that. It said that, "The crusaders' aircrafts, including Belgium’s, continue to bomb. Every Muslim who is well aware of the history of Islam knows that the holy war against infidels is an integral part of Islam.”

Other countries will follow and my guess is that Britain might be next, because of the many soft targets there and the presence of 3,000 jihadists in the streets of Britain, according to security sources.

Sixth, the desperation of the attackers sheds light on the psychology of those extremists. The police found a note by Brahim El-Bakraoui, the suicide bomber at the airport, that read, “I do not know what to do. I am in a hurry. I am on the run. People are looking for me everywhere, and if I give myself up I will end up in a cell.”

He was imprisoned before for armed robbery and he did not want to return to prison. At the same time, some of the attackers appeared confused and joined the Islamic State group for money or identity, but not necessarily on a religious basis.

Finally, radical Islamists exploit civil rights and freedoms in many cases. Belgian Foreign Minister Didier Reynders insisted on achieving a balance between civil rights and security. Unfortunately, the upper hand is for civil rights over security, and this is abused by extremists and the Islamic State group.

It should be noted that the two brothers, Brahim and Khalid El-Bakraoui, were on the American terrorist watch list. This shows the short-sighted approach of security forces in Europe on eradicating the threat of radical Islamists.

Terrorist attacks took place in Madrid 2004 and the UK in 2005, Paris 2015 and Belgium 2016. These attacks illustrate the inability of Europe to stop home-grown radical Islamists and disrupt their past and future plans. I will discuss in coming articles ways to weaken the sources of radicalisation that lead to terrorist atrocities like those in Brussels and Paris.

The writer is expert in Islamic movements.

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