Significantly more fighters joined Sunni militant organizations in Syria and Iraq from Belgium than any other country in the EU, according to the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.
Deputy Prime Minister Jan Jambon said that 400 people have left the country to join ISIL to date, with most of the recruits from Brussels.
And while Jambon said the numbers have slowed since he took office, the country is still faced with a problem that has no easy solution. Like many issues in Belgium, counter-extremism forces face a divide between national and regional authorities. According to Jambon, the resources that could prevent the spread of ISIL ideology are on a local level. The resources that could prevent people from actually being recruited are federal.
“It’s a small but complicated country,” Jambon said.
There are two schools of thought when it comes to preventing extremist recruits. The first is retroactive — stopping recruits en route to Syria and other countries, or investing in counterterrorism police units like the one that stopped the January attack in the Belgian town Verviers.
The second is preventative — reaching out to potential recruits before they’ve become immersed in extremist ideology.
The first method is difficult in a continent as de-federalized as Europe. As European Commissioner for Education, Culture, Youth and Sport Tibor Navracsics pointed out to the panel Tuesday, Europe has 28 national systems and some (like Belgium) are even further divided into regional authorities.
Jambon said that when the Charlie Hebdo attack took place in January, only four countries were exchanging information about terrorism suspects. Although countries have improved their exchange of information, there is still a debate among Europeans about security and privacy. Without an overarching police force or an essentially carte blanche monitoring decree like the U.S.’s Patriot Act, it’s difficult to police 28 countries.
“Terrorists know no borders,” Jambon said. “We have to work country to country.”
So, according to Navracsics, Europe is focusing on the “preventative” measure — how to prevent recruits before they’re attracted by ISIS’s message.
But even among panelists, there was disagreement over who should be targeted (where is the line between racial profiling and reaching out to marginalized communities?), how they should be targeted (ISIL does most of their recruiting online. Should Europe respond with a digital counternarrative or does it need more tailored messages?), and whose responsibility they are (national governments have more resources, but local municipalities have a better feel for their communities).
Abdi Warsame, a Minneapolis City Council Member who has faced “comparable” extremist threats in his Minnesota community, said local and federal governments need to work together in order to emphasize the dangers for recruits.
“It doesn’t take a lot of money to highlight that 95 percent of the people in my community who have gone to fight have been killed,” Warsame said.