The recent attacks in Brussels show that terrorists’ ability to strike at the heart of Europe remains apparently undiminished. Early reports suggest a death toll of around 31, with more than 100 injured. The Islamic State (ISIS) has claimed responsibility for the attack.
Belgium may seem an unlikely hub of jihadism, but despite being a small and peaceful nation, Belgian connections to militancy are long established. In the 1990s, bullets and guns made their way from local jihadi crooks in Brussels to the Groupe Islamique Armé, Algerian terrorists aiming to establish an Islamic state in Algeria. Throughout that decade, a smattering of Belgian residents headed off to fight in various foreign conflicts, including the one in Chechnya.
After 9/11, a major terrorism trial in Belgium led to the convictions of over 20 Islamists. Those jailed included Nizar Trabelsi, a former professional soccer player who had joined al Qaeda and planned to commit a suicide attack against a NATO air base. It also included Tarek Maaroufi, who was linked to the assassination of Ahmed Shah Massoud, the Afghan military leader whose death served as al Qaeda’s warm-up act two days before its main event.
More recently, as the war in Syria metastasized, Belgians were drawn there in significant numbers. Of the 5,000-6,000 Europeans who fought in Syria, up to 553 are believed to be Belgian. That makes the country the home of the highest number of foreign fighters in Syria, per capita, of any Western European country. Small wonder that even the country’s justice minister admits that his country has “a foreign fighters problem.” Some of those who arranged for the travel of these fighters to Syria were convicted of terrorism in a Belgian court in February 2015.
By most estimates, over 100 Belgians have now returned from the conflict. Although that is concerning enough, it must also be placed in the context of a broader issue. The Schengen Agreement allows for virtually unhindered freedom of movement throughout much of Europe, something that jihadists have taken advantage
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