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Belgium's flourishing jihadi scene

After the attacks on Paris, Belgium is coming under the microscope. In the last few years, the country has developed into a breeding ground for European jihadists. Many of the culprits come from poor areas.

Following the findings that at least some of the Paris attackers were based in Belgium, however, the country is acquiring a new reputation: as a base for European jihadists.

According to political scientist Asiem El Difraoui, the problems are homemade. "The Belgians have fallen behind on watching the scene, they have fallen behind on preventative measures," he told DW. "Actually, they've fallen behind on everything."

El Difraoui says the reason for Belgium's failings in combating extremism is clear. "The Belgians are much too preoccupied with themselves."

This means that Belgium is ill-equipped to take on the other domestic issues plaguing the country, El Difraoui says.

Numbers speak for themselves

GMF 2015 WS56 Asiem El Difraoui

Middle East expert Asiem El Difraoui

The statistics back up what El Difraoui is saying. According to the London-based International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence (ICSR), 11,000 Islamic fighters have travelled to Syria and Iraq between the end of 2011 and the end of 2013. One in five of those jihadists comes from Western Europe.

The ICSR statistics show that 296 fighters have come from Belgium - putting it among the countries most represented among the fighters. If you take into account the population of the country, Belgium leads the pack in providing European jihadists - around 27 fighters per million people. By comparison, 'only' 240 jihadists have originated from Germany.

From little towns to the jihad

The small town of Verviers in eastern Belgium is symbolic for what is happening in the country. Researchers from the University of Liege examined the levels of integration and social divisions in the town. Verviers is one of Belgium's poorest areas, and 15 percent of its 53,000 residents have a foreign background.

Some 117 nationalities live in the city, and it is home to the second-largest group of Chechens in Belgium, a group that is suspected of fostering Islamic terrorism.

Belgien Anti-Terror-Einsatz 15.01.2015

The raid in Verviers: Islamic terrorists opened fire on authorities

At the start of this year in Verviers, a raid by Belgian police - who were trying to prevent a planned terror attack - ended in gunfire. Two Islamists were killed after they fired on officials with automatic weapons.

Lack of economic opportunities

Muslims in Belgium have another problem too. A recent study by the European Network Against Racism (ENAR) found that they are often overlooked on the job market. Around six percent of the Belgian population is Muslim. Even when they speak the local language perfectly, they are often treated as foreigners. In 2012, the unemployment rate among residents born outside the EU was three times higher than for locally born jobseekers.

Amnesty International has also criticized the Belgian government for a lack of effort on integration. Companies have it too easy, they say, when they want to reject job applicants on the basis of their religion. Muslim women who wear a head covering are particularly affected by this type of discrimination.

Undoubtedly, the resulting frustration and feelings of exclusion make it easier for fundamentalist groups to radicalize individuals in Belgium and get them to commit acts of terrorism.

A new turning point?

Although the issues surrounding Belgium's Muslim population are well known, authorities have only offered token gestures and an increase in security to try to solve the problem. Investment in integration programs has come up short.

In 2009, the city of Antwerp banned the wearing of Muslim headscarves in public. Two years later, Belgium introduced a law prohibiting the wearing of burkas across the country. The fine for a violation was 137.50 euros ($147). Of the 200,000 Muslim women living in Belgium, only 270 women were fined.

Belgien Antwerpen Prozess Sharia4Belgium - Michael Delefortrie

Michael Delefortrie from "Sharia4Belgium" after the court case in Antwerp

The organization "Sharia4Belgium" was dissolved after the country's biggest court case against Islamic terrorism. The group, which had apparently recruited jihadis, was officially banned and its leaders given jail sentences of up to 12 years. After a number of terrorist attacks at the start of 2015, the Belgian government raised the terror warning and intensified the monitoring of telecommunications.

Asiem El Difraoui hopes that after the attacks in Paris, more efforts will be made by authorities to integrate Muslims into Belgian society rather than increase security measures. However, he believes this may only happen through foreign pressure.

"The French, especially, will not allow Belgium to stay so inactive on this issue," El Difraoui says.

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