On Tuesday, terrorists killed at least 34 people people in attacks on the Belgian capital of Brussels. An ISIS-linked news agency has claimed responsibility. While that claim remains unconfirmed, the attack nonetheless points to a problem that Belgium has faced for some time: A small but dangerous number of extremists have made the country their home.
How did this happen in, of all places, Belgium? One of the pithiest — and most insightful — answers I've seen came from Alain Grignard, a senior member of Belgium's federal counterterrorism task force, in an interview with the US military publication CTC Sentinel. Here's the quote:
Previously we were mostly dealing with 'radical Islamists' — individuals radicalized toward violence by an extremist interpretation of Islam — but now we’re increasingly dealing with what are best described as 'Islamized radicals.'
Grignard's point is that most Belgian jihadists today are not attracted to radicalism as a result of deep engagement with jihadist ideology, as some were in al-Qaeda's heyday. Rather, they have some preexisting attraction to violence or to extremism more generally, and ISIS provides a ready-made way for them to express that.
"The Islamic State has legitimized their violent street credo," as Grignard puts it:
The young Muslims from 'inner-city' areas of Belgium, France, and other European countries joining up with the Islamic State were radical before they were religious. Their revolt from society manifested itself through petty crime and delinquency. Many are essentially part of street gangs.
What the Islamic State brought in its wake was a new strain of Islam which legitimized their radical approach. These youngsters are getting quickly and completely sucked in. The next thing they know they’re in Syria and in a real video game.
This helps speak to — though of course does not fully explain — Belgium's struggles with jihadism, which include an unusually high rate by which Belgian citizens travel to Iraq and Syria to join groups fighting there. For a variety of complex reasons, the country has a lot of kids who feel deeply alienated and excluded — exactly the kind of people who are vulnerable to Islamic State recruiting.
It's not Islam that's radicalizing these kids, in other words. It's the milieu that surrounds them.