Belgian magazine Knack on August 30, 2016 published an overview of the most recent official numbers of Belgian foreign fighters involved in the war in Syria and Iraq. In this post we will summarize and translate the article.Knack based its report on the official database used by the Belgian security and intelligence forces as used by the Belgian Coordinating Body for Threat Analysis (OCAM-OCAD). An overview in ten questions.
How Many Belgian Foreign Fighters are there?
Since May 2012 the Coordinating Body for Threat Analysis (OCAM-OCAD) keeps track of Belgian foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq. In this database as on the date of publication there are 614 names: 457 foreign fighters and 157 wannabe fighters. The government has divided them into five categories:
- Category 1: presumably in Syria or Iraq: 266 individuals
- Category 2: presumably on their way to Syria or Iraq: 4 individuals
- Category 3: presumably returned from the war zone: 114 individuals
- Category 4: presumably tried to leave: 73 individuals
- Category 5: presumable candidates for departure: 157 individuals
Total: 614 individuals
Of these 614 at least 109 have been killed. More than 70 percent of the grand total are most likely affiliated with The Islamic State. The Security of the State presumes that a rather important amount was active within the Libyan branch of The Islamic State (for a detailed account on Katibat al-Battar check my old report). In total there are 104 females in the database; 50 left, 1 is on her way, 18 have returned, 19 tried to leave and 16 want to leave.
When did they leave?
Sharia4Belgium member Nabil Kasmi is believed to be the one who first left in August 2012. According to OCAD he had been in the region (Lebanon among other countries) even before, in the spring of 2012. It is believed that he left to explore departure routes and was looking out for potential contacts in the Syrian Jihadi milieu. (An extensive report by Guy Van Vlierden and myself on the first Belgian foreign fighters in Syria will be published later this month) After him other Sharia4Belgium members were among the first to leave. Kasmi was convicted to 15 years in prison on the famous Sharia4Belgium trial and is believed to still be active in the ranks of The Islamic State. Others who were among the first to leave were Sharia4Belgium member Said M’Nari (who was arrested at the end of June 2016 in the city of Antwerp) and Abdel Rahman al-Ayashi and his best friend (and adopted brother) Raphael Gendron (both men fought in the ranks of Suqur as-Sham in Northern Syria and were killed already in 2013). The last one who, officially, left was a 30-year old Bulgarian from the village of Koersel (in Limburg, the eastern Flemish province of the country), he left Belgium on December 28, 2015 and returned on March 3, 2016.
Average number of people who (tried) to leave per month:
2012: ca. 12
2013: ca. 12
2014: ca. 11
2015: ca. 6
2016: no data available yet
How old are the Belgian foreign fighters?
The overall majority (around 70%) are teenagers or are in their twenties. The oldest one (Shaykh Bassam al-Ayashi, father and adoptive father of the before mentioned Abdel Rahman al-Ayashi and Raphael Gendron) is 70 years old. The second oldest is a man from the city of Antwerp aging 69. The youngest are two girls from Antwerp aging 15 (in category 5 – see above). In total there 16 underaged (minus 18): 3 in Syria or Iraq (not including 32 ‘Belgian’ children under 12 in Syria or Iraq), 2 returned, 4 tried to leave, 7 presumably want to leave.
- teens: 48 (8%)
- twenties: 372 (61%)
- thirties: 133 (22%)
- forties: 48 (8%)
- fifties: 7 (1%)
- sixties: 3
- seventies: 1
Where are they from?
The 614 have left from exactly 100 Belgian municipalities. See map per province below:
Top 10 of Belgian municipalities where they left from:
- Antwerp – 97
- Sint-Jans-Molenbeek – 50
- Brussels – 46
- Schaerbeek – 35
- Vilvorde – 30
- Anderlecht – 18
- Ixelles (Elsene) – 10
- Verviers – 10
- Saint-Gilles – 8
- Ghent – 8
Top 10 of Belgian municipalities where wannabe fighters originate from:
- Antwerp – 22
- Sint-Jans-Molenbeek – 16
- Schaerbeek – 12
- Vilvorde – 11
- Anderlecht – 9
- Charleroi – 6
- Brussels – 5
- Forest (Vorst) – 5
- Maaseik – 5
- Verviers – 5
What’s the nationality of the Belgian foreign fighters?
In total people of 23 different nationalities have left Belgium. 372 of the 614 have the Belgian nationality. More than half of these Belgians are from Moroccan origin. Some dozens are reverted Belgians. 119 are from foreign nationalities and about 123 of them have an ‘unknown’ nationality.
Top 10 nationalities:
- Belgian – 372
- Moroccan – 39
- Russian – 25
- French – 16
- Algerian – 13
- Dutch – 7
- Italian – 6
- Syrian – 3
- Tunisian – 3
- Macedonian – 2
Why so many Russians?
In the database there are 25 Russians and 4 persons with a double Belgian-Russian nationality. 11 of those are in Syria or Iraq, 13 returned, 1 was arrested on his way over and 4 want to leave. The majority of these individuals are Chechens and some Dagestanis an Ingushetians. At first they were involved in the Jihad in the Northern Caucasus but since 2012 they shifted their focus to Syria according to OCAD. The majority of these fighters are members of Imarat al-Kavkaz, a Caucasian Jihadi group active in Syria, another significant number is fighting for The Islamic State.
What are the measures taken by the government?
- The Belgian government blocked the possessions of 12 terror suspects
- 12 ID’s have been revoked. The first one on March 18 2016
- Of the 114 returned 72 are still registered as a Belgian inhabitant. 37 have been deleted from the national register as the government doesn’t know where these individuals reside.
- OCAD stresses they do not only take repressive but also preventive and curative measures.
- 13 known returnees receive unemployment aid, paid by the government
Which Belgian foreign fighters were involved in (terrorist) attacks?
- Bilal Hadfi: suicide attack outside the Stade de France on November 13, 2015. Paris
- Brahim Abdeslam: suicide attack in restaurant Comptoir Voltaire. Paris
- Salāh Abdeslam: involved in the Paris attacks. While in French custody refuses to speak about his involvement in the November 13 attacks.
- Abdelhamid Abaaoud: presumed to be operational on-ground leader of the attacks in Paris. Killed five days after the attacks in Saint-Denis
- Chakib Akrouh: commited a suicide attack killing him and Abaaoud during the police raid in Saint-Denis
- Najim Lachraaoui: commited a suicide attack in Brussels National Airport on March 22, 2016
- Mohamed Abrini: accused to be involved in the Brussels airport attack
According to OCAD around two dozen Belgians were involved in terrorist attacks. About 15 Belgians commited suicide attacks in Syria or Iraq.
How many terrorism related investigations are there in Belgium?
Since the war in Syria the number of convictions reached epic levels:
- 2013 – 7 convicted
- 2014 – 55 convicted , 5 released
- 2015 – 116 convicted, 1 interned, 4 released
- 2016 – 101 convicted, 1 case undecided, 5 released
In total 32 returned Belgian fighters were convicted for terrorism. In the majority of the cases investigations are still ongoing.
How many ‘hate-preachers’ and recruiters is the government tracking?
In the near future OCAD will maintain a new database, containing hate-preachers, recruiters and possible ‘lone wolves’ (I rather prefer this instead of the lone wolves theories).
This database will be replacing the current JIB, or Joint Information Box and is not related to the dynamic foreign fighter database. There are 3 criteria one must meet:
- to damage democracy
- to entice hatred
- to spread propaganda via certain channels or actions
According to government officials there are now about 100 individuals in this particular database.
If one adds the foreign fighter database, it would mean the Belgian intelligence and security forces are now following around 700 individuals.