Social exclusion leaves Belgium ripe for extremism

Erin Conroy reports on how economic disenfranchisement and alienation has led to Belgium being an easy target for faraway extremists seeking to radicalise Muslim youths

Policemen stand guard in Verviers on January 15, 2015, after two men were killed during an anti-terrorist operation in the east Belgian town. Bruno Fahy/Belga Photo/AFP Photo
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VERVIERS, Belgium // Ahmet Balci has never had a job since leaving school in this once flourishing textile centre.

The warehouse where his grandfather was employed when he moved to eastern Belgium from Turkey, half a century ago, now stands empty.

Mr Balci, 22, says he is like many other Muslims his age living in post-industrial Verviers, where unemployment hovers at around 20 per cent. He has no prospects of work, and feels alienated in this city of 55,000.

“I feel that people here, they have a problem with Muslims,” he said. “There is a stigma.”

It is a sentiment echoed across Europe which has come into focus after this month’s terrorist attacks in Paris: angst from economically marginalised and socially excluded Muslim youth.

The individuals from this group, experts warn, remain vulnerable to recruitment for extremist causes, as the French gunmen were.

The growing resentments may have created an exceptional divide in Belgium, the European country currently claiming the greatest number of people per capita going to fight in Syria – and often, returning with a vengeance.

Verviers, about 30 kilometres from the German border, was rocked by a dramatic raid on January 15 in which Belgian police killed two gunmen who opened fire on them with assault rifles.

Authorities have said that the pair – identified as a Belgian and a Belgian-Moroccan – were part of a terror cell and had recently travelled to Syria to meet with members of ISIL. Kalashnikovs and bomb-making materials were found in the apartment.

A third suspect who was at the apartment during the raid was arrested and is suspected of providing logistics support to the terrorist cell.

A series of arrests across Belgium and Europe have followed as investigators scramble to piece together potential terror plots.

As the picture becomes clearer of home-grown terrorism coaxed out by faraway radical groups, experts say Belgium is fertile ground for extremism.

Gaps in employment and education, as well as policies seen by some groups as discriminatory – the 2011 ban on full Islamic veils in public, for instance – have led to feelings of isolation and a poor quality of life for Muslims in Belgium, says Michael Privot, who is from Verviers and serves as the director of the Brussels-based European Network Against Racism.

“When you look at the Muslim community, by and large, they are underprivileged,” says Mr Privot, who is a convert to Islam. “Half of the families which have a Moroccan or Turkish background are living just at the poverty line or below the poverty line. That really is huge and gives you an idea of the situation of these communities and how far they really are from the mainstream.”

The country’s diverse Muslim population – about 7 per cent of the national demographic – is mostly made up of second-generation Turks and Moroccans, as well as sub-Saharan Africans, whose grandparents emigrated to work in Belgian factories during an economic boom in the 1960s.

As families established roots, opportunities for migrants faded.

A report by the government’s labour oversight committee in 2013 found that 21 per cent of white Belgians were inactive, or not working for any reason, compared with 42 per cent for Belgians of North African origin and 51 per cent for Belgians with other African backgrounds.

Some of the old warehouses in the hills of Verviers, at the heart of the industrial Liege province, have been repurposed for use as apartment buildings or restaurants. It is not surprising, then, that in a city full of empty textile buildings where about a fifth of the population is Muslim, its largest mosque can be found in a former tannery built in the 1930s.

In the city’s Hodimont district, Assahaba Mosque is nestled among a handful of narrow streets that are dotted with halal butchers, Turkish bakeries and cultural centres representing people from different corners of the Muslim world: Kurds, Chechens, Moroccans, Angolans, Somalis, Guineans.

Arabic can be read on most of the storefront windows; kebabs and baklava are easy to come by.

“It really is a melting pot of cultures,” says a Congolese Belgian who works in a small fruit and vegetable shop. “It is nice to live in a place where we share something in common. Our children go to the same schools, they learn the same values. Here, they don’t feel as foreign.”

The imam of Assahaba Mosque, Frank Hensch, says the events of the past weeks have rocked the community, and that many older members are worried for their families.

“There are many economic problems and the younger people, they feel rejected and that they have nowhere to turn,” he says. “They go on the internet, and they look for something that they think will give their life meaning.”

‘A new youth subculture’

A recent study by the Brookings Institution in Washington estimated that between 250 and 650 individuals have left Belgium to fight in Syria and Iraq. Even by the lower estimate, it is the highest figure per capita in Europe.

Rik Coolsaet, a professor at Ghent University who has advised the Belgian government on counterterrorism policy, says there are many more people leaving to fight alongside militants today than there were to Iraq around 2003 or Afghanistan a decade earlier. They are also setting off at a much younger age.

“Those who went to Iraq would on average be around 29, but now we see the profile of someone much younger than this former generation of jihadists – seven or nine years younger,” he said. “It is no longer motivated so much by religion or politics – their understanding of Islam and the Quran is usually very shallow. It has more to do with the fact that they feel ill at ease in society. It is much more emotional, much more a part of a new youth subculture.”

The surge in numbers is partly due to the growing number of groups, promoted primarily online, which are facilitating the process. Sharia4Belgium, which was run by an Antwerp street preacher before it was disbanded, became a pipeline to Syria, enlisting young men and women to fight for terrorist organisations such as ISIL or the Jabhat Al Nusra.

Almost 50 of Sharia4Belgium’s members are currently on trial in Antwerp, though nearly all of them are being tried in absentia.

The group targeted Flemish Muslims – particularly where far-right political parties had taken a hard stand against immigrants. Antwerp had banned the wearing of head scarves in 2009.

Pieter Van Ostaeyen, a radicalisation analyst based in the Belgian city Mechelen, says it is possible that the language divide in Belgium – which has three official languages, French, German and Dutch – could also add to feelings of isolation among the country’s Muslims.

“It could contribute to the social exclusion,” Mr Van Ostaeyen said. “There has been much success in recruiting from the Dutch-speaking north. The spokesman for Sharia4Belgium is Dutch-speaking, and his statements appeal to their anger over social issues, so this was definitely their target for recruitment.”

The Muslim community recognises the need for unity and inclusion, says Mr Privot at the European Network Against Racism.

“This week there are meetings being organised to bring together different groups – Turks, Moroccans, Pakistanis – as these communities are now feeling that they are in danger,” he says. “There is a risk in Belgium right now that we will be pushed back very strongly – that we will now become the target and become even more alienated. Our community will pay a price, and so we now need to show that we understand, that we take responsibility together in fighting jihadists.”

What the government can do to stem extremism, he says, is work harder at inclusion.

“There is not only disenfranchisement economically speaking – access to jobs, to housing, education, a future – but Belgian Muslims do not fit into the national conversation when it comes to decisions being made about their lives,” he says. “We have schools forbidding head scarves, we have austerity programmes which are affecting this group the most, and there is a growing feeling that Muslims are not a part of the social fabric of this country.”

Protests of institutionalised discrimination have been made in Verviers this month, after police shot and killed a Turkish father of four who was carrying a knife in his hand. Police told Belgian media that 45-year-old Cemil Kaya had psychological problems.

Social media users in Belgium and Turkey have strongly condemned his death.

In Verviers, scrawled in black graffiti on the pillars of a local church not far from the Hodimont district, was a message that played on a tribute heard around the world in recent weeks: “I am Cemil.”

High alert

Authorities in Belgium have acknowledged the need to rethink the country’s integration model.

But how they will approach it is not clear. EU counter-terrorism chief Gilles de Kerchove told public radio in his native Belgium last week: “The solution? To assess, case by case – maybe give psychological help, maybe help a person find a place back in society – or by clearly punishing those with blood on their hands.”

On Rue de la Colline – a quiet street about a kilometre from Hodimont, close to the central train station – the ground floor apartment targeted by the antiterror operation last week is now boarded up. Black residue covers the outside of the windows where the three men opened up their machine guns.

“I heard blasts,” says one neighbour who did not want to be named. “It went on for some time. I told my son to sit on the floor with me, and we just waited. We were relieved to know that they are now gone.”

Prosecutor Eric Van der Sypt told Belgian media that police were targeting a group returning from Syria who had been about to launch “large-scale” attacks.

Just days before, ISIL released a video threatening attacks on Belgium.

Since the raid in Verviers, the country’s alert has been raised to its second-highest level, and Belgian authorities have arrested and charged at least seven Belgians with participation in a terrorist organisation.

But the suspected leader of the Verviers cell, a 27-year-old Belgian Moroccan named Abdelhamid Abaaoud, remains at large.

Social media has helped Belgian police to track activities of those travelling to or from Syria, leading to a number of arrests since officials began noticing the pattern in 2013. It also offers greater insight into their motivations, says Mr Coolsaet. It is very apparent that those reasons are not all linked to a misguided interpretation of Islam.

“One figure who we regularly see propped up as a hero on the social media profiles of these fighters, is an American rapper who had strong comments on discrimination in the US – Tupac Shakur,” he says. “The discourse you find in his songs is the discourse of these men. There is an emotional appeal to overcome that situation.”

The social media profiles also provide a window for family members, shocked by their loved ones’ decisions to fight in a war that they do not understand.

“Parents have a really hard time figuring out what their kids are doing or what their motivations are, and seeing pictures or comments in online profiles can be a very poignant, harsh reality for those parents who have seen their sons or daughters leave for Syria,” Mr Coolsaet says. “It is heartbreaking when you see these messages on social media between families, and for me, it really does explain this main paradigm: that what we are talking about is not religious, but social and generational.”