Despite Belgium’s small size, per capita it is sending the most jihadis from Europe to Syria. Its experience may teach the UK about the recruitment and ‘rescue’ of jihadis.
Belgium has had the largest number of jihadis leave to fight in the Syrian civil war, out of any country in western Europe, on a per capita basis.
Channel 4 News has learned that as of yesterday 399 Belgians had left the country of just 11 million people to join jihad, according to Pieter Van Ostaeyen, a Belgian expert on jihadis.
The number is around five times as many as in the UK, on a per capita basis. Despite having six times the population of Belgium, a similar number of jihadis have left the UK, around 500.
As female recruiters and pro-sharia networks are blamed by experts and the police for the huge number of people leaving Belgium, one Catholic father went to Syria and covinced his son to leave the fight and return home.
One Raqaa resident interested in jihadi groups engaged in Syria’s civil war told Channel 4 News that he was familiar with at least one Belgian jihadi in the IS stronghold of Raqqa, as well as two other Belgian people.
“On the ground I saw one, months ago. I don’t know his name. Also a kid and his mother”, said the resident who wished to remain anonymous.
Pieter Van Ostaeyen has written on the Jihadology blog: “Currently, some of the third and fourth generation of these immigrants are people who live on the margins of society. The Belgium government over the last several decades never really succeeded integrating the Islamic communities.”
He says that the Belgian government is worried that these fighters could return to attack Belgium.
Local officials have sought to penalise those who have fought in Syria.
“It would be unjust for these people to benefit from social programmes and use, for example, their unemployment payments to finance their fight in Syria,” Bart de Wever, mayor of Antwerp and president of Flemish separatist party NVA told the Flemish news station VRT in June.
Rosliana Adelline Geerman was arrested in Belgium on suspicion of recruiting people to join Islamic State.
Investigators in Belgium suspect that she may have helped recruit two women to go to Syria, one of whom married well known Belgian jihadi Brian De Mulder.
Belgian journalist Guy Van Vlierden, who works at the Belgian newspaper Het Laatste Nieuws, expressed the opinion on his blog: “There is sufficient indication that Geerman has served as an intermediary in the recruitment of two girls.”
— Guy Van Vlierden (@GuyVanVlierden) July 1, 2014
The father of one the Belgian men in Syria went to the country and convinced his son to come home.
Dimitri Bontinck travelled to Syria to bring back his son, who had gone to the country after studying in Egypt. After being captured and beaten by al Qaeda-linked groups, Mr Bontinck returned home without his son.
A year later, he went back to Syria and was reunited with his son, whom he convinced to return home to Antwerp, Belgium.
Since then, he has launched three other rescue missions to help other fathers bring home their sons leaving Belgium by the hundred. Mr Bontinck last week told the New York Post that he is back in Syria to try to contact another jihadi who fled Belgium.
Police have charged his son Jejoen with participating in a terror group, but he says his mission was to deliver medical supplies.