Belgian Fighters In Syria and Iraq – November 2014
By Pieter Van Ostaeyen
Islam is the largest minority religion in Belgium, it is estimated that about 6% (about 630.000 people) of Belgium’s total population are Muslims. In the 1960’s, when Belgium still was recovering from the total devastation of World War II, the country invited thousands of Moroccan and Turkish immigrants to work in the heavy industry which at that time dominated the Belgian economy. Most of these unschooled people had relatively well-paid jobs in the steel industry or coal mines. The guest-worker program was abolished in 1974, yet a lot of these people stayed in Belgium and brought in their families taking use of the family reunification laws. Today the Muslim population keeps on growing due to marriage migrations.
In 1974 Islam was officially recognized by the Belgian government as a subsidized religion; from 1996 onwards the Belgian Muslim community has been represented by the Muslim Executive of Belgium.1 Although this first generation of Muslims seems to have integrated quite well in Belgium, this surely doesn’t stand for their children and grandchildren. Cities like Antwerp, Mechelen, Vilvoorde, and Brussels now have important minorities of descendants of these guest-worker immigrants. As such one would say this isn’t problematic at all, taking into respect on how their parents and grandparents managed to build a career and family.
However, in the 1980’s and 1990’s Belgium started facing increasing problems and mishaps with its Muslim immigrant community. Cities like Mechelen in the 1990’s were known as hubs of petty theft and drug dealing (especially by Moroccan Berbers dealing hashish). More and more of these youngsters were cruising the city with expensive cars like BMW’s and Mercedes’s. It was commonly known these cars were paid with drug-money. At that time, the city of Mechelen was referred to as ‘Chicago at the river Dijle’2, due to its extreme crime rates. Other Flemish cities were facing the same problem. In Antwerp the district of Borgerhout was known as Borgerokko because of its high amount of inhabitants from Maghrebi origin. Brussels, Belgium’s capital, had entire no-go zones. It is in this climate of fear and mutual mistrust that extreme right wing parties like Vlaams Blok (now Vlaams Belang) thrived. On the federal elections of Sunday November 24th, 1991, out of the blue Vlaams Blok gained around 6.5 % of the votes. The tone of voice was set for the years to come; using slogans like ‘adapt or get lost’, Vlaams Blok profited highly from the general mistrust amongst the Belgian public towards the Muslim community.
In the course of the next few years Vlaams Blok started building up its anti-Islamic theme, criticizing Muslims on head scarves, the slaughter of sheep on ‘Eid festivities and the fact they didn’t manage to integrate in our society. They easily disregarded the fact it was mainly because of political parties and narratives as their own that the Muslim society in Belgium had little or no chance to assimilate or let alone integrate. In the course of the next few years Vlaams Blok was forbidden and reappeared as Vlaams Belang. As such the name was dropped but the rhetoric remained the same; intolerance and latent racism in Flanders grew steadily.
It should be noted that well before Belgium was confronted with its huge amount of fighters engaged in the war in Syria (and later Iraq), the country already was a main supplier of Jihadist Fighters. On September 10th, 2001, the suicide attack on Ahmed Shah Masoud, leader of the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan was conducted by a Belgian Muslim. And even before 9/11 Belgians played a quite important role in international Jihad. Several Belgians were engaged in GICM (Groupe Islamiste Combattante Marrocaine) and GIA. Shaykh Bassam al-Ayashi, the oldest Belgian fighter in Syria, who once was suspected to be a main al-Qaeda recruiter now is leading his own little branch of Suqur as-Sham in Northern Syria.
As one of the main reasons for all, these Belgians involved all refer to the Belgian policy on its inaptitude to integrate the Muslims in our democratic society. These guys don’t see us as being democratic; they rather see how Muslims are being oppressed on what they consider to be their basic rights. The fact that Belgium forbad the face-veil or Niqab, headscarves are forbidden in schools and in public service, next year private Halal-slaughter will no longer be allowed, and so on. It is a message even confirmed by Sharia4Belgium’s spokesman Fouad Belkacem. In a statement he recently published from prison, he states: If I look back upon these days I think about the arrogance and the deep-rooted islamophobia of the Belgian State […] The head-scarf ban in 2009 hit us like an atom bomb […] For almost 50 years we saw humiliated Muslims beg for basic rights […].3
It is in reaction to these general sentiments that Sharia4Belgium was founded on March 3 2010. The group was inspired by other European Salafi groups that already existed such as Islam4UK, at that time led by the radical Islamist preacher Anjem Choudary. In its founding notes Islam4UK stated: [the group was] established by sincere Muslims as a platform to propagate the supreme Islamic ideology within the United Kingdom as a divine alternative to man-made law, and to convince the British public about the superiority of Islam […] thereby changing public opinion in favor of Islam in order to transfer the authority and power […] to the Muslims in order to implement the Shari’a (in Britain).4 A very similar discourse was spreading among radical Muslims in Belgium. As such, Sharia4Belgium copied a lot of the rhetoric of Anjem Choudary and other inspiring leaders of Islam4UK. Sharia4Belgium denounced democracy and stated it wanted to introduce the Shari’a in Belgium.
Fouad Belkacem explains in his statement who is leaving for Jihad in Syria:
A. The Migrants for the case of Allah. These believers seek to please Allah wherever possible. They believe that the highest value after worshipping the unity of Allah is the blessed Jihad. Jihad doesn’t mean Holy War, this term stems from Christianity and its Crusades. May Allah give this brothers what they seek.
B. The Migrants against suppression. They are the ones who left because of the injustice they daily lived in Belgium. A lot of practicing Muslims every day feel the injustice from the government and society.
C. A new live, a new beginning. A lot left for Syria to start a new life. The fact that a lot of youngsters prefer to live under bombs than in “hospitable, warm Flanders” as such is another proof against the government. Everything seems better than Belgium.
D. Sense of justice. The last group is that of the pious Muslims who could no longer bear the injustice done to their brothers. They want to contribute, how futile it may be.5
This general resentment against Belgiums policy against its Muslim community is also confirmed by the Belgian researcher Montasser AlDe’emeh. In the Belgian weekly Knack of September 23, 2014, Montasser published part of his interviews with a Belgian Islamic State fighter:
In Belgium daily they make new laws against Muslims. A Niqab ban, a headscarf ban and soon maybe a ban on beards and some Mosques? Why can’t our sisters wear a headscarf? […]Politicians, teachers at school, people at work, they always said ‘Adapt or get lost.’ If I do not want to adapt to the Belgian society, than I can get lost to Syria no?6
The networks and numbers:
Apart from the role of Sharia4Belgium (which will become crystal clear once we discuss the number of Belgians in Syria and their group affiliation), we also saw the rise of smaller networks. One of these is Resto du Tawhid, an organization led by the Belgian convert Jean-Louis Denis, surnamed Le Soumis. Resto du Tawhid was active around the railway station of Brussels North; distributing food aid amongst the needy Muslims. However early April 2013 it became clear that Resto du Tawhid wasn’t just about charity. When two 16 year old boys from the athenaeum Fernand Blum in the city of Vilvoorde left for Jihad in Syria; Jean-Louis Denis was arrested and questioned for recruiting them. In a reaction he said: Ce n’est pas moi qui fais cet appel. C’est Allah qui appelle à défendre la veuve et l’orphelin. Comme il nous appelle tous les samedis à aider les pauvres. […] Ce sont des ordres d’Allah.7 After the arrest of Denis, the Group just continued its activities online as if nothing ever happened.
Apart from the known networks the Belgian fighters in Syria do give a helping hand to those who still want to join the Jihad in Syria and Iraq. On his facebook-account a Belgian fighter posted quite detailed instructions on how to reach Syria; ‘Don’t behave like warriors,’ he said, ‘but like tourists.’ Here is an excerpt from his instructions:
Bismilahi Rahmani Rahim
Message to all those who want to come…
1) Rumours that the borders are closed are completely false.
2) Take as little luggage as possible with you. Maximum one or two large pieces each. Try to take something that is easy to carry. Nothing without handles – LOL
3) Crossing the border is done by foot. It’s about 200 metres and it is quiet.
4) For the sisters it is necessary to avoid the niqab. Just wear a hijab and dress yourself the Turkish way.
5) For the sisters, avoid to come on your own, unless you really have no choice. Minimum two sisters is good.
6) For couples and families, mentally prepare yourself to be separated for a month to six weeks after your arrival. Since the men will immediately depart to a training camp, while their relatives go to a villa where other families are staying. For those who know brothers or sisters able to take their family in, arrange with them that they pick up your wife or family at the villa. But hey, that’s very rare.
7) Take all your precious belongings with you in a handbag, not in your luggage.
8) For those who are coming by car, at this moment cars cannot enter. It is necessary to park the car at a spot where you don’t have to pay, take a picture of it, write down the address and give that to the brothers. It’s possible that this problem will be solved in the near future and the cars can enter again.
9) Avoid to take your entire house with you! Everything you need is available here, be it clothes or things for your home, we have everything. It’s better to carry cash with you and buy it here.
10) I have all the information about the route to follow and the phone numbers to call. But expect a series of questions and excuse me if I don’t answer the phone. We cannot trust everyone.
11) Buy an anonymous phone card at home that lets you make a phone call in Turkey.
12) Don’t behave like a warrior. Shave your beards, behave like tourists and buy tickets back and forth.
13) Say the prayers of the voyager, and bismilah, may Allah guide you and blind the kuffar.8
It is estimated that about 438 Belgians at some point were active in Syria. Of this sample we fully identified 132 persons; this means we know them by name, age, town of origin, affiliation in Belgium and Syria. 81 further anonymous persons are known by their kunya or “nom de guerre”. At least 35 of the Belgians in Syria are women. The oldest fighter is Bassam al-Ayashi (68), the youngest one (left early 2014) is Younes Abaaoud (just 14). The average age of the Belgians is 25. At least 14 of them are minors. About 44 individuals were killed in battle (not all of them were identified) and it is estimated by government officials that around 70 to 90 people have returned from Syria.9 When we take a look at the group affiliations of the Belgian fighters a first striking observation is that about 15 % of the ones who have been in Syria at some point have official ties with Sharia4Belgium. Furthermore, if we take a look at the 46 people standing trial on the Sharia4Belgium case in Antwerp; most of them are either killed or still fighting in Syria. Only 9 people standing trial on a total of 46 in what is called Belgium’s largest anti-terrorist trial ever, is perceived by some as the Belgian government desperately wanting to set an example for others who still want to leave.
It should be pointed out that most of the Sharia4Belgium members who went to Syria can be seen as what the author of this piece calls the first wave of leavers. This first wave might be seen as those who left out of ideology, the ones who wanted to act against President al-Assad’s war on his own population as they perceive it. In the first wave we also saw some adventurers, people who seem to have only left to experience war; most of these people returned utterly disillusioned. Yet, not all of them are to be classified in this group; a lot of these early leavers were real die-hards, already fully radicalized who previously attempted to join Jihadist groups in Somalia, Yemen, or Chechnya. Most definitely the situation has changed, we are now confronted with what might be called the second wave; those who immediately want to join the Islamic State as it is called after ISIS re-established their version of the Islamic Caliphate. As noted by Belgian newspaper journalist Guy Van Vlierden and myself this new wave of Belgian fighters is immediately leaving to join IS in ar-Raqqa, its provincial capital in Eastern Syria. A prime example can be found when three youngsters from Kortrijk left for Syria; they had one prime target: ar-Raqqa. If there is one important difference between those who left during the first wave and the second it would be their favor to fight for the Islamic State.
Yet, most of the Sharia4Belgium members who left in the mean while joined the Islamic State in ar-Raqqa. About 45 percent of the Sharia4Belgium members joined the Islamic State after having been affiliated with other groups like Majlis Shura al-Mujahideen or Katibat al-Ansar wa’l-Muhajireen. Belgian fighters in 2012 originally mostly ended up joining Majlis Shura al-Mujahideen, at that time a rather small brigade led by the Syrian brothers Firas (aka Abu Muhammad) and Amr al-Absi (aka Abu Athir). In the interrogations more than one of them named Abu Athir as their leader.10
According to the Belgians Majlis Shura al-Mujahideen existed out of two branches, the Ansar and the Muhajireen. The Ansar were all Arabs, mostly Syrians, the Muhajireen were all Europeans, at first only Belgians but later also Dutch and French joined. The Muhajireen were led by their Belgian Emir Houssien Elouassaki from Vilvoorde. Both branches were housed separately in Kafr Hamra; they had a villa and a palace at their disposal. Near the end of November 2012 Majlis Shura al-Mujahideen counted around 30 to 45 fighters, most of them Ansar. A few months later the Muhajireen branch consisted out of 35 to 40 fighters, most of them from Antwerp, Vilvoorde and Brussels.
In the early days Majlis Shura al-Mujahideen cooperated with the Free Syrian Army, Jabhat an-Nusra, and Ahrar as-Sham. In the first half of 2013 Majlis Shura al-Mujahideen entered the ISIS coalition together with the brigade of ‘Umar Shishani. It is said that Houssien Elouassaki, the emir of the Muhajireen at that time pledged allegiance to Jabhat an-Nusra after a dispute with Abu Aseer. Fighters who followed him were Azdine Tahiri, Abdellah Nouamane, Mohamed Mezroui, Adel Mezroui, Nabil Kasmi, Michaël Delefortrie and Brahim Bali. Several of them later ended up with ISIS after all. Belgians who immediately joined ISIS were Saïd and Ali El-Morabit.11
A small minority of Belgians, about ten of them, are affiliated with Suqur as-Sham. At least 13 fighters are still affiliated with Jabhat an-Nusra. We know of one Belgian of Syrian origin who joined the Syrian Arab Army. At a certain point it was even estimated that a total of about 270 Belgians could have been affiliated with IS, although in my opinion that number is most likely too high. Guy Van Vlierden describes how he reached that number on his blog:
‘The number of Belgians in the ranks of the Islamic State can be as high as 270. That’s the estimate I published yesterday in the newspaper ‘Het Laatste Nieuws’, showing two of the most recent recruits.
The estimate of 270 compatriots within the Islamic State is based upon the database of Belgian fighters in Syria that arabist Pieter Van Ostaeyen and I maintain using several open sources. It has to be stressed that the number is an extrapolation, since we do not know for sure the affiliation of all 385 entries already on our list.
We do have that information for 72 of the Belgian fighters, and identified 50 as members of IS. What means that in this sample, the share of the Islamic State amounts to almost 70 percent. Details about the others can be found at Pieter’s blog. The ratio can be different in the total figure of course, but seemingly there are no reasons to assume that difference is significant. So it’s fair to say that the Belgian presence within IS can amount to 270.’12
The problem with the math here would be in my opinion that this doesn’t take in account that a lot of Belgian fighters joined Jihad in Syria even before ISIS claimed a place in the Syrian war and the fact that some returned or got killed before the rise of ISIS in the spring of 2013.
Remarkable is that of the 202 we were able to pinpoint to a city in Belgium; the majority of them originates from Flanders and more precisely the north-south axis Antwerp, Mechelen, Vilvoorde, Brussels. This could be explained by the fact that Sharia4Belgium was mostly active in these cities. If we look at the total count (based on own research) that would leave us with a total number of people leaving per city as follows:
- Brussels: 73 individuals13
- Antwerp: 65 individuals
- Vilvoorde: 25 individuals
- Mechelen: 14 individuals
- Other cities in Flanders: 17
- Cities in Wallonia: 8
(See map for details)
As pointed out before it is assumed that this central north-south axis is overrepresented because the strong influence of the Sharia4Belgium-network. As for the individuals who left from the eastern or western provinces of Flanders there are only four of them with an identifiable link with these networks.14
As far as our open source gathering allowed us, we were able to locate 107 Belgians in Syria and Iraq. Some of them over the course of due time moved to ar-Raqqa as they became affiliated with the Islamic State. It must be noted that there still is an important presence of Belgian fighters in Aleppo, most of them affiliated with Jabhat an-Nusra. The majority of them however
The areas where the Belgian contingent was or is active:
- Aleppo : 44
- Idlib : 12
- Raqqa : 25
- Homs : 8
- Damascus : 7
- Latakia : 4
- Deir ez-Zor: 4
- ‘Azaz: 2
- Atma: 1
- Dabiq: 1
- Saraqib: 1
- Kobani: 1
- At least five Belgians are currently in Iraq, mostly around Mosul
Addendum: The Belgian “Convoy of Martyrs”:
(in random order)
- Abd ar-Rahman al-Ayashi (aka Abu Hajjar), 38, Idlib, Suqur as-Sham
- Abdalgabar Hamdaoui, 34. Jabhat an-Nusra
- Abdel Monaïm Lachiri (aka Abu Sara), 33, Aleppo, ISIS
- Abu al-Bara’ al-Jaza’iri, Saraqib
- Abu Ali al-Baljiki, Idlib
- Ahmed Dihaj (aka Abu Atiq), 32, Sharia4Belgium, Jabhat an-Nusra. One of the accused on the Sharia4Belgium trial. Left Belgium in April or May 2013, killed September 2013
- Anonymous, Ahmed Stevenberg, Lattakia
- Anonymous (Vilvoorde)
- Anonymous (Vilvoorde)
- Anonymous (Brussels)
- Faysal Yamoun (aka Abu Faris al-Maghribi), 30, Antwerp, Sharia4Belgium, Jabhat an-Nusra. Left Belgium on December 7, 2012. Killed February 2014. One of the accused on the Sharia4Belgium trial.
- Hamdi Mahmoud Saad, 32, Latakkia
- Houssien Elouassaki (aka Abu Fallujah), 22, Vilvoorde, Sharia4Belgium. Killed in Aleppo province September 2013. One of the accused on the Sharia4Belgium trial.
- Isma’il Amghroud, 22, Maaseik, killed June 2013
- Khalid Bali (aka Abu Hamza), 17, Antwerpen, Deir ez-Zor, Sharia4Belgium, ISIS, killed May 2014.
- Mohammed Bali (aka Abu Hudayfa), 24, Antwerp, Sharia4Belgium, ISIS, killed in Hama. One of the accused on the Sharia4Belgium trial.
- Noureddine Abouallal (aka Abu Mujahid), 23, Antwerp, Sharia4Belgium, killed in July 2013. One of the accused on the Sharia4Belgium trial.
- Raphael Gendron (aka Abdurauf Abu Marwa), 38, Brussels, Suqur as-Sham, Idlib, killed in April 2013
- Sean Pidgeon, Left Belgium in November 2012, killed in March 2013.
- Tarik Taketloune, Vilvoorde, 19, Sharia4Belgium, brother returned to Belgium and free under conditions, wife still in Syria, killed in May 2013. One of the accused on the Sharia4Belgium trial.
- Anonymous, known as Younis Asad Rahman (aka Asad ar-Rahman al-Baljiki), Latakkia, killed in August 2013
- Saïd El Morabit (aka Abu Muthanna al-Baljiki), 27, Sharia4Belgium, ISIS, killed in March 2014. One of the accused on the Sharia4Belgium trial.
- Abu ‘Umar, ISIS, Brussels
- Rustam Gelayev (son of Chechen warlord Ruslan Gelayev), Aleppo, killed in August 2012
- Nabil Azahaf (aka Abu Sayyaf), 21, Brussels, Sharia4Belgium, ISIS, killed in May 2014. One of the accused on the Sharia4Belgium trial.
- Anonymous, known as Abu Dujana al-Mali, Brussels, ISIS, ar-Raqqa, killed in March 2014
- Karim Azzam (aka Abou Azzam), 23, Brussels, killed in April 2014
- Anonymous, known as Abu Salma Al-Belgiki, Deir ez-Zor province, killed in August 2013
- Anonymous, known as Abu Handalah, killed in Aleppo
- Anonymous, killed in clashes with tribal fighters on July 30th 2014 in al-Keshkeyyi, Deir ez-Zor province
- Iliass Azaouaj, 23, Brussels, killed by The Islamic State for alledged betrayal. Raqqa, August 2014
- Abu Jihad al-Baljiki, further unknown, killed on August 31st in a regime counter-attack defending the Deir ez-Zor military airport.
- Abu Mohsen at-Tunisi, further unknown, killed on August 31st in a regime counter-attack defending the Deir ez-Zor military airport.
- One of the Bakkouy brothers from Genk. Killed late September 2014.
- Abu Yahya al-Beljiki, reported killed on October 15, 2014.
- Ilyass Boughalab, killed in March 2014, Shariah4Belgium, ISIS. One of the accused on the Sharia4Belgium trial.
- Abū ‘Umar al-Beljīkī, of Saudi origin, killed in Latakia province in the beginning of October 2014, Jabhat an-Nusra
- Khalid Hachti Bernan aka Abu Qa’Qa, ISIS memeber from Virton, reported dead in May 2014
- Abu Adnan al-Baljiki, previous Jabhat an-Nusra member, joined ISIS in December 2013, killed in September 2014
- Abu Muhammad al-Baljiki, unknown ISIS fighter, killed in Deir ez-Zor mid October 2014
- Oufae Sarrar, aka Umm Jarrah, Sharia4Belgium, ISIS, wife of Ilyass Boughalab, killed end 2013. First known Belgian women killed
- Zakaria El Bouzaidi, friend of Sean Pidgeon, killed in September 2014
- Abu Sulayman al-Baljiki al-Maghribi, unknown ISIS fighter, killed in Kobanê mid November 2014
- Sabri, last name unknown, AKA Abu Turab, 19, Vilvoorde, left on August 12 2013 and killed in December 2013
1 On their website http://www.embnet.be/Default.aspx the Muslim Executive publishes information on social affairs, dates of religious festivities, mosques, Imams and social affairs. Very recently the Executive was forced by the Belgian government to distance itself from the Islamic State formerly known as ISIS.
2 It was only in 2007 that Belgian newspaper De Gazet van Antwerpen stated that the city was losing this negative nickname. See http://www.gva.be/cnt/aid631647/mechelen-raakt-af-van-imago-chicago-aan-de-dijle
3 Translated by the author. Original text released in September 2014 via social media. Published at http://pietervanostaeyen.wordpress.com/2014/09/20/statement-by-fouad-belkacem-sharia4belgium/
5 Translated by the author. See http://pietervanostaeyen.wordpress.com/2014/09/20/statement-by-fouad-belkacem-sharia4belgium/
6 Translated by the author. ‘Het verhaal van een Antwerpse IS-strijder in Syrië’, M. AlDe’emeh, Knack. September 17 2014, p.29
7 It’s not me who appeals to them. It’s Allah who demands to defense the widow and the orphin. Just like he asks us to aid the poor every Saturday […] These are orders from Allah. La Libre Belgigique, Il distribue des repas et recrute pour la Syrie, April 23, 2013. http://www.lalibre.be/actu/belgique/il-distribue-des-repas-et-recrute-pour-la-syrie-51b8fbb4e4b0de6db9ca44d7
9 In own research this number is significantly lower, about 30.
10 Personal interview with Guy Van Vlierden, who had access to the judicial pieces from the Sharia4Belgium trial.
13 According to Belgian senator Karl Vanlouwe 141 Belgian fighters stem from Brussels, double the amount counted in own research.