'Ideologically pure' foreign recruits were crucial for ISIS, says Syria expert

Debates continue at the Brussels bombing trial over the importance of international politics in radicalising young Belgian men

Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo pays his respects at the memorial monument in Brussels to commemorate the 2016 terrorist attacks. AFP
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ISIS leaders did not trust locals in Syria and Iraq — unlike foreign recruits that were “ideologically pure” — a specialist in Syria’s Islamic ideologies testifying in Belgium’s biggest-ever terrorism trial.

Most recruits were aware that they were joining ISIS for the purpose of armed combat, Thomas Pierret, senior researcher at the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) told a court in the north of Brussels this week.

“ISIS leaders viewed locals as not very good Muslims and in many cases railed against widespread habits like smoking cigarettes,” said Mr Pierret.

“ISIS had an office of tribal affairs. Unless I’m mistaken — the first time those kinds of offices appeared were in colonial Africa. It shows the particular relationship [ISIS had] with the local population.”

The revelations, made at a high-profile trial in Belgium, brought renewed attention to internal dynamics at play within ISIS, the radical group that carried out a wave of bombings across Europe in 2015 and 2016.

Ten men, including several whom prosecutors claim fought alongside ISIS in Syria, are on trial since December for the ISIS-claimed suicide attacks in the Belgian capital that killed 32 people and injured 300 on March 22, 2016.

Eight of them — Mohamed Abrini, Ali El Haddad Asufi, Sofian Ayari, Bilal El Makhoukhi, Herve Bayingana Muhirwa, Salah Abdeslam, and brothers Smail and Ibrahim Farisi — watched in silence as experts answered questions from judges, the jury and lawyers about ISIS and Islamist extremism in Belgium.

One Swedish defendant, Osama Krayem, who is believed to have been present when ISIS set aflame a Jordanian pilot in Syria in 2015, left the courtroom to wait in a cell for reasons his lawyer did not explain. A tenth accused, Osama Atar, is said to have been killed in Syria in 2017.

Thursday's unusually long hearing lasted about 12 hours as three experts, who had been summoned by the court, provided additional context as witnesses.

Presiding judge Laurence Massart did not allow questions about the Syrian conflict following the 2016 Brussels attacks.

Mr Pierret pushed back against questions from defence lawyers who repeatedly placed defendants in a wider geopolitical context of anti-Western sentiment fuelled by bombings of civilian populations by a US-led coalition against ISIS.

Asked multiple times about how many civilians were killed in coalition air strikes in Syria, allegedly compounding anti-Western feelings, Mr Pierret said that their number was in “dozens” every month until March 2016, after which the figure rose as fighting intensified.

Figures were “relatively” low until then because ISIS had little military or state infrastructure that the coalition could target, he said, quoting figures from UK non-profit Airwars.

Most civilians deaths were caused by Syrian government bombings.

Defence lawyers also asked about the hardening of views among many rebels, pointing to the example of Abdul Baset Al Sarout, a goalkeeper from Homs and resistance icon who died in 2019.

Lawyers quoted him as an example of a rebel who had progressively joined more hard-line groups including ISIS.

Mr Pierret said this was factually wrong - Sarout never joined ISIS.

“We must not mix everything up,” said Mr Pierret.

“Millions of Syrians endured violence. A portion of them took up arms.”

An even smaller portion part of those joined extremist organisations, he added.

Two other Belgian researchers focused their intervention on the radicalisation process of Belgians who fought in Syria. They highlighted the importance of their social environment in Belgium, including peer pressure and lack of trust in the state.

People who joined ISIS in Syria “often have a history of migration — many speak of the humiliation faced by their parents, or say their parents’ religion was not recognised”, said criminology professor at Louvain University Fabienne Brion.

The debates pointed at the varying importance of international politics, religion and social background as decision making factors for travelling to Syria.

“It’s not a secret that it’s a very tense public debate,” said Corinne Torrekens, radicalisation expert at the Free University of Brussels.

“We are not here to find excuses, but to understand.”

Six of the defendants were found guilty in June of involvement in terror attacks in Paris in November 2015, which killed 130 people.

Unlike in France, the Belgian trial will be determined by a jury, not judges. It is expected to run into the second half of the year.

Updated: March 31, 2023, 10:36 AM