A year after the deadly terrorist attacks that hit Brussels, radical Islamist militants continue threaten the country. As the Islamic State shifts its European strategy, Belgium is likely to remain a core part of the group’s recruitment and attack-planning process.
A year after the March 22nd terrorist attacks in Brussels, Belgium continues to face an elevated terrorist threat. Belgian security and intelligence authorities are concerned about the risk posed by the likely return of dozens of Belgian citizens who are trying to return after fighting alongside Sunni extremist groups in the Middle East – including the Islamic State (IS). The presence of such militants could bolster propaganda efforts by radical Islamist groups, support the formation of new and more dynamic cells and inspire self-radicalised extremists. Since March 2016, the Organisation for Threat Analysis Coordination (OCAM) has kept the terrorism threat level at 3, the second highest tier, for Brussels and the rest of the country. This highlights the ongoing heightened concerns among local intelligence officials over the likelihood of further Sunni extremist plots.
The November 2015 IS attacks in Paris turned global attention to the presence of major radical Islamist networks in Belgium. The March 22nd bombings in Brussels further highlighted the problem, as the perpetrators were part of the same transnational group that had previously hit the French capital. 12 months after these incidents the terrorist threat in Belgium is increasingly characterised by a growing number of radical Islamist cells. These operate in Brussels, as well as in Antwerp, Verviers, Charleroi and other urban centres of the country.
Cells may benefit from loose connections to transnational groups located in France, Holland, Germany or the Middle East. However, Islamist groups are increasingly small in size and reliant on local capabilities to minimise the risk of being detected by police and intelligence forces. Radical Islamist networks in Belgium evolve in areas with deep-rooted criminal groups and a presence of Sunni militants with experiences that date back to the Afghan and Bosnian conflicts. The ideological indoctrination is facilitated by the close-knit social circles and the spreading of IS propaganda on social media. Recruitment and logistical support are enabled by the fluid links between local drug and arm dealer networks and the small and dynamic Islamist cells.
The growth of radical Islamism in Belgium
Belgian authorities have expressed growing concerns due to the increasing appeal of Sunni extremist ideologies among local youth in specific districts of Brussels. According to information released by Belgian media in early March 2017, the volume of youngsters in the Molenbeek-Saint-Jean district of the capital turning toward radical Islam is increasing. Belgian universities are currently analysing the reasons behind the failure of de-radicalisation programs.
There are additionally credible concerns that with the return of militants who fought alongside IS and al-Qaeda-aligned groups in the Middle East, local youth will further be fascinated by radical Islamist recruiters and ideologues. This issue highlights the weakness of state-sponsored and community-focused programs and points toward a long-term social issue that is likely to define the nature of the terrorist threat in Belgium in the coming years.
An evolving terrorist strategy
Belgium, like the rest of Western Europe, is exposed to an evolving terrorist threat. IS has repeatedly called upon its followers and sympathisers to conduct attacks within the country. Prior to being killed in a drone strike, senior IS member Rachid Kassim instructed his supporters to target police and military forces in Belgium. However, the nature of the terrorist threat in the country is changing. As IS loses strategic territory in northern Syria and north-western Iraq, the group’s capability to plan and oversee complex attacks such as the Paris ones from its Middle East bases is degraded. The organisation is now pushing militants to develop their own networks within western European countries to plan and conduct attacks with little or no direct human contact with the Middle Eastern part of the group.
In February 2017, two radical Islamist militants were detained in Montpellier, France, as they were planning an imminent terrorist attack. The suspects were in the process of preparing TATP-based explosives devices within their homes. There is a real possibility that militants in Belgium will increasingly turn to local expertise, using domestic networks to acquiring weapons and explosives components on the Belgian market. As IS’ capabilities to plot complex attacks are weakened, the group will try to inspire followers to conduct a higher volume of attacks in Western Europe, including Belgium to create an overall feeling of instability and insecurity.
The risk of single-assailant attacks
This situation leads to a heightened risk of single-assailant or small squad assaults in Belgium. As radical Islamist cells find it difficult to develop large support networks necessary to plan and conduct complex attacks, it is highly likely that they will turn toward simpler forms of terrorist plots. These involve stabbings, car-rammings, shootings and the usage of homemade explosive devices to detonate IEDs, car-bombs and potentially conduct suicide bombings. This tendency was highlighted by the first successful IS-inspired stabbing attack in Belgium in August 2016, when a single-assailant injured two police officers in Charleroi. Additional terrorist plots are likely to try to target mass gatherings, centers of tourism, and religious buildings as well as police and military personnel. While such attacks are unlikely to lead to the high numbers of casualties seen in Paris in November 2015, they are more difficult to disrupt in their planning phase and could still manage to have a high impact.