GUEST POST: Belgium’s Syria Fighters ~ An Overview of 2012 and 2013

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Belgium’s Syria Fighters ~ An Overview of 2012 and 2013

By Pieter Van Ostaeyen

It has been a while since I wrote my first contribution for Jihadology on the Belgian fighters in Syria. Since then, there has been a lot going on at the Syrian front. But also back at home things started stirring up. The Belgian government and local authorities reacted harshly when they found out their nationals were fighting in Syria. Back in the spring of 2013 it was thought that about 75 to 150 Belgians were fighting in Syria. The new numbers published by Aaron Zelin of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation on December 17th (here), showed that up to 296 Belgians were by then fighting in Syria. New revelations by the Belgian newspaper ‘Het Laatste Nieuws’ confronted us with more Belgian fighters involved in the Syrian conflict. Even Jihadi sources started reporting on the Belgian presence. This leads to the actual number of Belgians involved might even be higher than the previously estimated 296. It can be assumed that the actual number of Belgians that are or have been involved in the Syrian war is about 336.

We will deal with this matter in two parts; at first I will present an analysis of the numbers that we have at our disposal; the second part will deal with some new detailed cases of Belgian fighters, some of them present in Syria until today.

Part I : Belgian Foreign Fighters ~ The Numbers

Of the 336 cases found we identified 68 via traditional and “new”[1] media. The most known Belgian foreign fighters are by far Jejoen Bontinck and Brian De Mulder. Both are affiliated with Sharia4Belgium; Jejoen came back to Belgium (and was promptly arrested), Brian (recently sentenced to jail for dealing cocaine in his home town Antwerp) is still in Syria. When the first reports of Belgian fighters appeared early last year, officials immediately pointed out Sharia4Belgium; they were by far the group suspected of recruiting Belgian youngsters. At first, I admit, I doubted this claim, but as things evolved and more sources became available, we now know that at least 28 of the 68 mentioned were directly involved in Sharia4Belgium. 9 of this 28 person sample (8 men, 2 women) are known members of ISIS (The Islamic State in Iraq and as-Sham). At least one fights for Jabhat an-Nusra.

Total

Identified

Sharia4Belgium

ISIS

Jabhat an-Nusra

336

68

28

10

1

If we exclude the alleged Sharia4Belgium-members we get a quite different picture. On group affiliation the information still is very scarce as we only know for less than 10 % of the cases involved.

Total

ISIS

Jabhat an-Nusra

Suqur as-Sham

Liwa Shuhada Idlib

336

21

5

5

1

For some we also have an indication of their whereabouts; 17 out of 29 are in Aleppo province, 6 of them in Idlib. The youngest who left were five 16 year old boys from Brussels and Vilvoorde; there is some doubt whether one of them was actually 15 when he left. The age of the Belgian fighters ranges from 15 to 68 (if we include Sheikh Bassam al-Ayashi who lived in Brussels for years and currently resides in Syria). If we don’t add al-Bayashi’s age, the next in line is his son Abd ar-Rahman al-Ayashi and Raphael Gendron (both killed in clashes with regime forces at the age of 38). The average age of the Belgian fighters would be about 23.5. At least 17 minors went to Syria, about four returned. One of them got dragged back to Belgium by his mother. Ten of these minors are from the capital Brussels and the nearby city of Vilvoorde.

This brings us to the cities that seem to be “affected” by their citizens leaving for Jihad in Syria.[2] This topic is a bit controversial as some cities deny their inhabitants are connected with the Jihad in Syria. In our sample data we find 81 individuals from 8 different cities:

Brussels

Vilvoorde

Antwerpen

Mechelen

Genk

Maaseik

Willebroek

Roeselaere

Luik

29

18

12

14

3

3

1

1

1

So it is clear that the capital Brussels is overrepresented when it concerns foreign fighters. Vilvoorde, Mechelen and Antwerp are next in line. Some loners seem to have left from Roeselaere (in the western part of Flanders) and from Luik (Liège in Wallonia). The majority of the Belgian fighters however are all from the axis Antwerp, Mechelen, Vilvoorde, and Brussels. If we plot these on a basic GoogleMap (with a little detour via Willebroek) this would be the result:

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And indeed, the action radius of Sharia4Belgium stretched from Antwerp to Brussels.

The main concern of government officials is the return of these, once active, fighters to their hometowns. If we take a closer look at who returned we can conclude the following (based again on publicly available information); 28 at least have returned to Belgium from Syria (4 of them never reached Syria as they were arrested at the Turkish border). One of them, Hakim Elouassaki, was wounded in Syria and returned home for medical care. On January 23th some Belgian newspapers reported on two pregnant Belgian fighter’s wives being helped back home by the Belgian government. As both were married to known members of Sharia4Belgium their repatriation was probably conditional; return in exchange of information on the ones remaining in Syria.

Returned from Syria (by affiliation):

Sharia4Belgium

ISIS

Jabhat an-Nusra

9

6

2

Returned from Syria (by city):

Antwerp

Willebroek

Vilvoorde

Genk

Luik

Brussel

6

1

5

3

1

1

The reported death-count thus far:

  • 7 members of Sharia4Belgium
  • 6 residents of Brussels
  • 6 residents of Vilvoorde
  • And at least one from both Maaseik and Mechelen

At this point it seems the Belgian fighters lost about 38 men and women since December 2012. A bit more than ten percent that is. But about 270 Belgian fighters are still there. A lot of information is yet to be disclosed.

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[1] By new media we mean Social Media canals like Twitter, YouTube, Facebook and even Google+

[2] This topic is a bit controversial as some cities deny their inhabitants are connected with the Jihad in Syria.