Accueil arrow Tribunes libres arrow Islamist terrorism in Europe : the case of Belgium







Prof. Dr. Herman Matthijs & Farhan Zahid

Professor Dr. Herman Matthijs (Belgium) is Senior Lecturer at Vrije University
Brussels and Ghent University. Farhan Zahid (Pakistan) is a PhD student
(Counter Terrorism) at Vrije University Brussels.





Belgium has been a victim of terrorism since early 1970s. Since then we observe a number of violent non-state actors of various different ideologies involved in perpetrating violent terror attacks. The terror groups involved during 1970s and 1980s were mostly radical Marxist factions and liberation movements. We see a plethora of terrorist organizations involved in such as Red Army Faction (RAF), Ukrainian Liberation Front, Irish Republican Army, Justice Commandos for the Armenian Genocide, Al-Fatah, Irish National Liberation Army, Black March, Independent Albanian Movement, Basque Fatherland and Liberty (ETA), Communist Combatant Cells (CCC), Crazy Brabant Killers, Black Lebanon, Arab Revolutionary Army and Croatian Nationalists.

The country first suffered by the hands of Armenian terrorist organization New Armenian Resistance (NAR) which launched a wave of terrorist attacks during late 1970s. NAR which was considered an ally of Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia (ASALA) targeted Turkish banks, business offices, Turkish airline offices and other Turkish interests based in Belgium. The raison d'etre for systematically assaulting Turkish interests was to avenge late 19th century genocide (1885-1915) which Turkish government had refused to acknowledge. The wave of terror attacks severely damaged Turkish businesses and resulted in enormous economic losses, and the attacks continued during 1980s and early 1990s till the NAR was cracked down by Belgian authorities.[1]

The second wave of terrorist attacks began with the advent of Communist Combatant Cells (CCC), and Revolutionary Front for the Proletariat Action (FRAP), two communist organizations connected to other contemporary European communist terrorist organizations such as Action Directe (France) and Red Army Faction (West Germany). The organizations created a lot of havoc during 1980s by launching terror strikes against capitalist symbols such banks, multi-national corporations and business centers. CCC was also active in planning to strike targets as formidable as offices of North Atlantic Treaty Organization. CCC had virtually ended with the arrest of its leader Pierre Carette in 1985.[2]

Another slightly less terrorizing wave of terror attacks was launched by Peace Conquerors in 1985. An environmental extremist organization that launched several attacks against pharmaceuticals, and its sister-concerns also struck similar targets in Germany and Australia.[3]  Another organization of same kind was Animal Liberation Front that struck businesses that use animals for testing. Animal Front planted bombs and damaged factories and offices in Antwerp and Schoten during late 1990s.

Belgium also experienced a turf war between anti Turkish Kurdish militia Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and Pro-Turkish groups. Brussels was the battle ground during early 1990s when these two struck each other with terror attacks. PKK attacked Turkish diplomatic missions and business interests while Anti-Kurdish groups struck businesses and private properties owned by Kurdish émigrés.

The first organization that employed Islamist ideology for terrorism in Belgium was Syrian Mujahideen. It was found involved in only attack that resulted in the death Antanios Hanna, First Secretary at the Syrian Embassy in 1987.[4]  Survivors of Hama and Peoples Mujahideen were two other Islamist organizations of Syrian origin that planned and targeted Syrian government interests in the aftermath of Hama crackdown by Syrian President Hafiz ul Assad in 1982 against the revolt led by Syrian Muslim Brotherhood.[5]

During 2000s the terror attacks' graph took a noose dive, sharply distinguishable from patterns in 1980s and 1990s with the exception of years 2001-2004 where some terror incidents did take place.  During this period most of terror incidents were planned and perpetrated by Islamist extremist groups such as Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group and Algerian Armed Islamic Group (Groupe Islamique Armé), both connected to Al-Qaeda and considered to be Al-Qaeda's affiliates.

The end of Afghan Conflict

The end of Cold War paved the way for ‘New Terrorism' what scholars and counter terrorism experts describe to religious/fundamentalist wave of terrorism. Now the fundamentalist/Islamist groups with eternal vengeance against the west were now in an eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation. There was no buffer between, as the Soviet Union had collapsed in 1991.[6]


End of Afghan War (1988-79) marked the beginning of a new era. It witnessed waves of Islamist extremism sweeping through almost every Muslim-majority country. Expatriate Muslim communities were no exception; immigrant Muslim community in Belgium has been acutely facing the problems of extremism and radicalization since then. The Muslim community in Belgium stands at 6 percent (628,751) of the total population (11 million), with a large percentage comprising of immigrants from North African countries: Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia with small number of Libyans. Turkish and Kurd immigrant groups are also in significant numbers[7]. There is a small Pakistani immigrant community of around 15,000, of which many have become naturalized.[8]

Bulk of Muslim immigrant community consists of unskilled labor recruited during 1960s and 1970s for construction of highways and underground mass transit system. Those workers, mostly from Morocco later brought in their families and the number kept growing at a high rate. The Belgian government compensated them by giving them Belgian nationality and jobs in STIB/MIVB (Société des Transports Intercommunaux de Bruxelles) the Brussels Urban Inter-Transport Company.

The second generation of Muslim immigrants is mostly Belgian-born. Currently they have a higher percentage among registered 7.4 percent unemployed workers and live on state benefits (Belgian Social Security System)[9]. The benefits include family benefits, unemployment benefits, incapacity benefits, pensions and others.[10]

Refugees from conflict zones and asylum seekers are also on the increase. Majority of applications for asylums originate from Muslim countries. Unlike the United States and Canada, the Belgian government has never been interested in importing skilled workers from developing countries on routine basis. That is one of the reasons that a large number of immigrants and asylum seekers from different countries have become a burden on Belgian economy.

Growth of Islamist extremism

Second generation Belgian-Muslims have been significantly influenced by the growth of extremism. A sprawling network of mosques, funded by Saudi Arabia and other conservative Middle Eastern states spread across Europe. Almost every European capital received at least one central mosque during Afghan War period. The mushroom growth of mosques was in fact encouraged during that period. Muslim youth's new interest in religion was also encouraged as they were seen willing to visit the war zone in order to help their ‘brothers'. It was during the same period a huge central mosque was built at Brussels downtown area with Saudi Arabian government's funding. Currently there are around 380 mosques in Belgium.[11]

Belgian expatriate Muslim community youth who had gone to Pakistan-Afghanistan border areas for fighting against the Soviets started moving back to Belgium after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989. These returnees were radicalized to the core in puritanical version of Islam which was even harder to digest even for their own parents.  But they were seen as heroes amongst Muslim youth who inspired them and started following their path. Yugoslav Wars of Succession in 1990s further complicated the situation  as massacres of Bosnian Muslims and atrocities committed during war paved the way for already disgruntled, unemployed Muslim youth, under the tutelage of Islamist community centers and mosques.

Effects of Algerian Civil War

No crisis contributed more than Algerian Civil War to further radicalize and involve Belgian Muslim community. Hundreds of young Algerian from Belgian Muslim community signed up for Group Islamic Army (GIA). They not only physically went to join hands with their colleagues in Algeria but also generated funds and logistics for GIA. In his memoirs, Omar Nasiri, a former Islamist described as to how GIA activists and sympathizers in Belgium asked him to procure illegal weapons through his sources in Belgium and then to ship those weapon off to Algeria via Spain. Nasiri through his contacts in Belgium purchased hundreds of Kalashinkov rifles, Uzis, explosives, detonators, and ammunition for GIA during his time with them. He defected to French secret service DGSE (Directorate General for External Security) only after realizing that his own family could be arrested for his role as weapons peddler for the GIA[12].

Nasiri's memoirs brings home the fact that a segment of Algerian and Moroccan youth in Belgium had embraced puritanical anti-American and anti-western version of Islam in 1990s.Mosques, radical clerics, and Afghan returnees played crucial role in this regard. GIA and other radical cells had been able to develop cells across young Muslim Belgians and a sprawling network came into existence before 9/11 attacks. The GIA started operating during Algerian Civil War and accused French government of providing financial and logistical support to military regime in Algeria. Some of Belgian-Algerians and Moroccans became part of those cells. In fact the GIA's official fortnightly newspaper Al-Ansar was edited and printed in Brussels[13]. Belgian security services during that period were successful in busting some of those cells in 1995 in cooperation with their French counterparts, but it was only after 9/11 attacks that they began to tackle them more seriously.

The Bosnian and Chechen Wars

Another important international conflict was Yugoslav Wars of Succession (1992-95). Although a territorial conflict and primarily a civil war amongst former states comprising Yugoslavia the conflict took its toll on very mindset of expatriate Muslim community in European states. Bosnian conflict was far more significant because of its location and level of atrocities and human rights violation committed in any European country after World War II. The conflict deeply impacted the minds of European Muslims. Radical Islamist forces capitalized on those events for grinding their own axes. Islamist organizations like Hizb ur Tahrir (Party of Freedom) and European branches of Muslim Brotherhood and Jamaat-e-Islami organized public rallies and marches across Europe.

According to Maajid Nawaz, a former Islamist leader of Hizb ut Tahrir's UK branch, describes atrocious videos of Bosnian War did create an uncomfortable environment. The videos were shown at mosques, community centers, and Islamist study circles.

"The study circles were supplemented by videos, and most strikingly, those of the conflict in Yugoslavia and the appalling treatment of the Bosnian Muslims by the Serb forces.....Back then, it was all about VHS cassettes: copies would be made and meetings would be arranged to watch these tapes.....In some ways, Bosnia was no different from the situation then in Afghanistan: in both cases, there were Saudi funds available to train and fight. .....When these fighters returned to the UK, they were treated like heroes: with their big beards and talk about Islam, they felt like our very own Che Gueveras."[14]

He further elaborated the Bosnian War issue and the case of extremism as, "The terrible, unfolding events served as the perfect recruitment ground for Islamism. These people were being killed for being Muslims. Worse, because they are not Muslims with the ‘proper' understanding, they don't even understand why it is happening to them. But Islamism offered a powerful explanation, which is why this shift in identity politics began to occur both in Bosnia and across Europe. In some ways, you could argue that just as Pakistan's troubles with violent Islamism-Jihadism-were born through Afghanistan, European Jihadism was born through Bosnia."[15]

The effects of Second Chechen War (1999-2001) were also substantial. The war caused a human catastrophe and resulted in deaths of thousands of civilians during aerial bombings over Grozny and other Chechen cities. Human Rights Watch described the events as, "[Mopping up operations] are routinely the occasion for abuse, particularly arbitrary detention and subsequent torture, ill-treatment, and "disappearances." Soldiers also killed numerous civilians, both during and beyond the context of sweep operations, in indiscriminate shootings. Masked soldiers conducted numerous nightly raids, detaining men who subsequently "disappeared."[16]

Unlike the First War in the Second episode of conflict was marred with far more usage of jihadist vocabulary and Islamist rhetoric. Omar Khattab, a Saudi national and Shamil Basyov, both Afghan War veteran were dominating the scene. Both were viewed as ‘heroes' of jihad in Chechnya, despite the fact that they had no official standing in the de facto independent Republic of Chechnya lasted from 1996-99.[17] 

Cases of human rights violations in Bosnian and Chechen wars also created an impact, especially on the over living pattern of expatriate Muslim community, not only because of their proximity and access to free media, but also the role Islamist organizations and charities played to galvanize support.

The post 9/11 Scenario

In overall planning of September 11 attacks, Belgian radical Muslims seemed to play no role. The planners were based in Hamburg, Germany (the Hamburg Cell) and it was from there that they established contacts with Al-Qaeda, visited Afghanistan via Pakistan and later they were sent to the US for flight training. By September 11, 2001, the GIA had lost the war and its brutality to Algerian civilians had rendered the outfit unpopular. Even radical Muslim clerics like Abu Qatada and Abu Hamza, based in European countries, renounced their support for GIA. But some GIA remnants went on to join  hands with Al-Qaeda's central network based in Kandahar. It was from there that terror plans involving Belgian Muslims were made and executed.

The role of Belgian radicals was associated with another event of prime importance. Two days earlier on September 9, 2001, two suicide attackers, posing as Belgian journalists assassinated anti-Taliban and Al-Qaeda leader Ahmed Shah Massoud in Khawaja Bahauddin, Takhar province[18].

The suicide bombers (Dahmane Abd al-Sattar and Bouraoui el-Ouaer) were of Tunisian origin and it's not clear whether they were recruited in Belgium or in Tunisia. But it is certain that they had links with a Tunisian-Belgian Tarek ben Habin Maaroufi, who provided them passports stolen from Grenoble, France[19].

The said event highlighted the presence of Al-Qaeda and its associated Islamist groups in Belgium. It further got more prominent when  Nizar Trabelsi got arrested from Brussels in September 2001 after he was found involved in planning of terror strikes against the US soldiers at Kleine Brogel Air Force base near city of Peer in Limburg province. He had connections with Al-Qaeda and earlier met ‘shoe-bomber' Richard Reid-a British convert known for his attempt to bomb transatlantic airliner in December 2001[20].

During Operation Enduring Islamist radicals from several countries were arrested by the US forces. On the other side of border Pakistani security forces also arrested Al-Qaeda's on-the-run militants. Many of them were nationals of European countries but of Arab descent. According to Wikileaks, two Belgians were among the 600 Al-Qaeda operative arrested during those arrests. Mesut Sen was of Turkish origin while Mosa al Zemmori was of Moroccan descent.

Mesut Sen was recruited by Haider Zammar the same individual who played a key role in establishing Hamburg Cell, the group of radical Islamists responsible for 9/11 attacks. According to Wikileak's Guantanamu files, "In one version of the detainee's story, he sat next to Mohamed Haydar Zammar during a flight from Hamburg, Germany to Karachi, Pakistan (PK). Zammar is believed to have recruited Muhammad Atta and the other l1 September 2001 hijackers in Hamburg. Another of the detainee's stories indicates that he sat next to Zammar during a flight from the United Arab Emirates to Karachi, PK."[21]


Mosa Zemmori was another radical Islamist from Wilryk, Belgium, arrested from triabl areas of Pakistan by security forces in 2002. Zemmori, during his stay in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan attended training camps at Khaldan and Derunta near Jalalabad.  Leaked files of Joint Task Force at Guantanamo Bay describe Zemmori as a high ranking member of Moroccan Islamic Fighting Group (MIFG) and part of its ideological/theological commission.[22]

Belgian Islamists have been active in disseminating radical jihadist thoughts on internet even prior to 9/11. Malika El Aroud, wife of Dahmane Abd al-Sattar, the suicide bomber who killed Ahmed Shah Massoud, was known for her jihadist writings at internet forums.

El Aroud wrote with the name of Oum Obeyda, ran jihadist sites and openly declared her association with Al-Qaeda and its ideology. The New York Times reported on her role as female jihadist instrumental in radicalizing European Muslim youth via her blog and posting.

 "She calls herself a female holy warrior for Al Qaeda. She insists that she does not disseminate instructions on bomb-making and has no intention of taking up arms herself. Rather, she persuades Muslim men to go and fight and rallies women to join the cause.... Ms. El Aroud has not only made a name for herself among devotees of radical forums where she broadcasts her message of hatred toward the West. She also is well known to intelligence officials throughout Europe as simply "Malika" - an Islamist who is at the forefront of the movement by women to take a larger role in the male-dominated global jihad."[23]

She wrote at her now defunct site, ""It's not my role to set off bombs - that's ridiculous," .... "I have a weapon. It's to write. It's to speak out. That's my jihad. You can do many things with words. Writing is also a bomb."[24]

She was finally arrested by Belgian authorities along with her second husband in 2008[25]. Both were sentenced for 6 and 18-months respectively for supporting radical Islamic organizations via internet.[26]

Like every other expatriate community Belgian Muslims have their representative bodies to deal with the government on their behalf. The primary organization is Muslim Executive Council, dominated by Muslims of Algerian and Moroccan descent the organization is slated to have ties with Islamic fundamentalist groups, according to one report by Belgian intelligence community.[27]

So far Belgium national security services have been able to dismantle and prevent any major Islamist terrorist attack. Belgium adheres to European Union's counter terrorism policy based on four principles of Prevent, Protect, Pursue and Respond. In 2006 the Belgian Interior Ministry formerly launched its de-radicalization program called Plan Radicalism. The comprehensive plan emphasizes the need of addressing root causes of radicalization, with strict oversight over violent, racist, xenophobic, and anti-Semitic comments and messages on print and electronic media. Special counter terrorism cells at local police and federal levels have been established to prevent and detect cases related to terrorism.[28]






On December 13, 2011 Nordine Amrani, a Belgian of Moroccan descent threw grenades and fired shots on people busy doing Christmas shopping at a busy shopping street in Liege, Belgium. Before he committed suicide Amrari, a former convict and drugs and illegal arms peddler was able to kill six people including two children and teenage girl. Although Amrani had nothing to do with Islamist extremism and he committed this act of mass murder due to psychological issues he had been suffering for long, but the event Growth of Islamist fundamentalism and incidents of terrorist attacks on Belgian soil by radical Islamist is a matter of grave concern for not only Belgian authorities but also for 600,000 strong Belgian Muslim community. The terror attacks without any doubt have resulted in rise of Islamo-phobia across the country and could further pave the way for serious discriminatory policies. Currently the things have not gone out of control and there are chances of quick recovery only if moderate Muslim networks join hands with government and allow themselves for integrating into the society. Belgium is not immune to economic crises spreading across the Euro zone and any further recession could result in tightening of immigrant laws and overall immigrant policies. The impact of these policies would also provide basis for fundamentalist rhetoric and strengthen their resolve. Therefore, it is essential for both Belgian Muslim community and incumbent Belgian government of Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo to consider a de-radicalization and re-integration programs for disillusioned youth, trapped in narratives provided to them Islamic fundamentalist ideologues. Prominent leaders of Belgian Muslim communities have to come forward to work in liaison with Belgian government to address the issue. I would like to quote Marc Sageman here who has aptly highlighted the problems of radicalization of European and American Muslim communities. He said,

"The United States was able to cherry pick immigrants and allowed Muslim engineers, physicians, university professors and businessmen to immigrate. The result is that the Muslim American community is solidly middle class, with a higher average income than the rest of society. This is not true of Europe, which imported unskilled labor to reconstruct the continent that had been devastated by World War II."[29]

Thus, Muslim immigrants in the US have income levels slightly above national level, whereas in Western European countries the situation is reverse. There is far more unemployment amongst European-Muslims than their counterparts living in the US.

It is high time for Belgian Muslim community, and especially for Pakistani immigrants to start working over devising strategies for keeping away their future generations from the clutches of radical Islamist ideologies. Countries like Morocco, Algeria and Turkey are experiencing high level economic growth rates and many members of their expatriate communities have been moving back to take advantage of it. On the other hand Pakistan economy is showing little or no growth because of the security issues and political turmoil. Power shortage has also stalled the growth rate even further and no near solution is in sight. Pakistani expatriate community, therefore, is expected to contribute more in this period of financial instability and to better the already battered brand name of Pakistan.



Prof. Dr. Herman Matthijs & Farhan Zahid
June 2013













1980-06-27 : Antwerp, Belgium. Syrian Palestinian Said Al Nasr threw two hand grenades into a group of Jewish children waiting for a bus. 1 dead, 20 injured.


1992-03-23: Terrorist attack in launched by Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in Brussels at a Belgian government office building, no casualties reported


1992-03-23: Terrorist attack in launched by Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in Brussels, targeting office of an NGO, no casualties reported


1992-03-23: Terrorist attack in launched by Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in Brussels, targeting airports and airline offices, no casualties reported


1992-03-23: Terrorist attack in launched by Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in Brussels, targeting business centers, no casualties reported.


1992-10-12: Terrorist attack in launched by Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in Brussels, targeting business centers, no casualties reported.


1992-10-30: Terrorist attack in launched by Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in Brussels, targeting business centers, no casualties reported.


1992-11-24: Bombings of business offices in Brussels, no one claimed responsibility, no casualties reported


1994-01-01: Armed attack by anti-Kurdish Turk groups in Brussels, 11 people reported injured


1994-01-02: Armed attack by anti-Kurdish Turk groups in Brussels, no casualties reported


1994-02-27: Armed attack by Pro-Palestinian Immigrants at police in Brussels, no casualties reported


1994-02-27: Armed attack by Pro-Palestinian Immigrants at police in Brussels, no casualties reported


1994-11-28: Bombings of business offices in Mechelen, no one claimed responsibility, 5 received injuries


1995-01-17: Bombings of government offices and buildings by Algerian terrorist groups GIA in Brussels, no casualties reported


1997-03-17: Armed assault at business centers in Brussels, no one claimed responsibility, 4 killed



1997-06-23: Bombings of government/diplomatic offices and buildings by Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia in Brussels, no casualties reported


1998-10-01: Bombings of government/diplomatic offices in Brussels, no one claimed responsibility, no casualties reported


1998-10-22: Armed attacks at business facilities in Schoten by Animal Liberation Front (ALF), no casualties reported


1998-11-17: Armed attacks at NGO offices in Saint-Josse-ten-Noode Municipality by Grey Wolves, no casualties reported


1999-07-10: Terrorist attack at business centers by Animal Liberation Front in Antwerp, no casualties reported


1999-08-12: Terrorist attack at business centers by Animal Liberation Front in Antwerp no casualties reported


2002-04-01: Terrorist attack on religious figures/institution by radical Islamists in Anderlecht, no casualties reported


2002-05-03: Terrorist attack on religious figures/institution by radial Islamists in Brussels, no casualties reported


2003-06-04: Terrorist attack at water supply by unknown assailants in Brussels, 20 received injuries


2003-06-04: Terrorist attack at government/diplomatic building by unknown assailants in Brussels, no casualties reported


2003-06-04: Terrorist attack at government/diplomatic building by unknown assailants in Brussels, no casualties reported


2003-06-04: Terrorist attack at government/general building by unknown assailants in Brussels, no casualties reported


2003-06-04: Terrorist attack at government/general building by unknown assailants in Brussels, no casualties reported


2003-06-04: Terrorist attack at airport/airlines by unknown assailants in Brussels, no casualties reported


03-06-04: Terrorist attack targeting police by unknown assailants in Brussels, no casualties reported


2003-06-04: Terrorist attack at government/general building by unknown assailants in Brussels, no casualties reported


2007-02-01: Terrorist attack targeting police by unknown assailants in Charleroi, no casualties reported


2008-01-18: Terrorist attacks targeting Belgian tourist in Wadi Daw'an Desert Valley, by Islamist extremists in Yemen, 4 killed, 4 injured



2008-12-17: Terrorist attack at government/diplomatic building by unknown assailants in Brussels, no casualties reported


2009-01-05: Terrorist attack on religious figures/institution by radical Islamists in Brussels, no casualties reported


2011-12-13: Murder-suicide attack in Liege by lone gunman of Moroccan descent, 6 killed, 125 injured


2012-02-14: Terrorist attack at Shia-sect mosque in Brussels by Islamist extremist, 1 killed[30].



Centre Français de Recherche sur le Renseignement
21 boulevard Haussmann, 75009 Paris - France
Tél. : 33 1 53 43 92 44 | Fax : 33 1 53 43 92 92 | Contact