Per capita, more foreign fighters in Syria come from Belgium than any other country in Western Europe. France, Germany, and the United Kingdom have each produced more fighters in total (1700, 760, and 760, respectively), but plucky little Belgium tops the charts proportionate to its population. According to a 2015 report, Belgians represented nearly 500 fighters in extremist groups fighting in Syria and Iraq.

It’s important to emphasise that we’re talking about a tiny minority of people. Nevertheless, the question is valid: why is Belgium producing so many more militants per capita than other countries? Is the root cause socio-economic inequality among Belgian’s minority Muslim population? A failure of integration policies? Or does the problem lie with Belgium’s (occasionally chaotic) federal system of government and overstretched, under-funded intelligence services?

When we asked for your thoughts on the Brussels attacks, we had a comment sent in from Shah, condemning the attacks but also wanting to know why Belgium is the largest contributor of foreign fighters in Syria proportionate to its population. He argues there must be “something seriously wrong in [Belgium] when it comes to minority treatment.”

To get a reaction, we spoke to Professor Maurits Berger, Chair of Islam and the West at Leiden University Centre for the Study of Religion. How would he respond to Shah?

bergerYes, this is the thousand-dollar question. Why are there more Syria fighters from one country than another? Even within Belgium, we see that there’s a lot of Syria fighters from one municipality, and actually none from another… What we do know is that there’s a very strong social factor among the youth in certain environments. [But] when it comes to the country at large, I have the impression that in Belgium there are tensions, just like in other countries, but for a long time they have not been discussed, and instead swept under the carpet…

To get another perspective, we put Shah’s question to Martin Conway, Professor of Contemporary European History at the University of Oxford. Professor Conway specialises in the history of Belgium, so can he think of historical reasons for the numbers of foreign fighters?

conwayI think it’s important, Shah, to appreciate that we’re still talking about small minorities. But there must be some peculiar, specific Belgian basis to this, and I think I would emphasise two aspects to that. One is that the transformation of most Belgian urban communities into very diverse, multi-faith environments has been really very recent, and has often been accompanied by real economic difficulties, with a lot of people leading quite marginalised lives. Also, therefore, we have seen problems of social integration, especially in a context where, for a long time, Belgian local government has been rather under-resourced and, in some respects, rather amateurish.

But the other aspect I would also emphasise is that it is, exactly as we see elsewhere in Europe, in those sort of urban, multi-faith environments that the paths to radicalisation have been most explicit. One sees it in London, one sees it in Paris, but one also sees it in Brussels and other Belgian cities, where particular forms of identification with Islam present a counter-ideology to the world that some young people find themselves inhabiting.

Finally, we spoke to Herman Matthijs, Professor in Public Finance at the Universities of Ghent and Brussels. How would he respond to Shah? Would he agree with Professor Conway’s point about problems with local government?

Herman MatthijsI think that nobody knows the perfect answer to this question. Belgium is indeed the greatest contributor of foreign fighters proportionate to its population size, and within Belgium it’s concentrated on the Brussels area. Certainly, there are 90 communes in Brussels and 6 police zones, and the authorities didn’t really have enough human intelligence concerning the attacks… But there are also problems in the education system, problems with parents not taking enough responsibility for their children, problems with the Schengen system, and problems with the authorities in general. But as to the specific question: “Why Belgium”? Nobody really knows.

Why do so many foreign fighters in Syria come from Belgium? Is socio-economic inequality to blame, or failed integration policies? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below, and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!

IMAGE CREDITS: CC / Flickr – Romain Veillon

49 comments Post a commentcomment

What do YOU think?

  1. avatar
    Ivan Burrows


    It is religion & not location that creates the terrorists.

    Not all Muslims are terrorists but all terrorists are Muslim.

    • avatar
      Maurits Berger

      This is an often heard comment. Actually, it is a Saudi journalist who coined this statement in 2004, but he added the word “today”. And that is correct: in the 1990s, most suicide attacks were committed by the Tamil Tigers, before that the IRA, RAF, ETA and other terrorist groups were active in Europe. In other words: today’s terrorism is dominated by Muslims. That is the reason why the reason cannot be exclusively be found in Islam, because Islam is more than 13 centuries old, and the terrorism perpetrated by Muslims only 30 years – if Islam were the cause of terrorism, we should have been witnessing this kind of Muslim terrorism for more than 13 centuries, and that is not the case. We therefore have to consider other factors as well: social, economical, psychological, criminal – in short: human factors

    • avatar
      Mohammed Habahbeh

      I don’t think that you have full awareness of what you say Ivan Burrows. Just open your heart and mind and watch more than one news channel. Thank you.

  2. avatar
    Nadia Dereguardati

    very simple! … deep unsatisfaction, ..too many migrated people… and lack of issues… made the ingnition of revolt…

  3. avatar
    Andrej Němec

    Because there are many uneducated Moroccans of Islamic religion. Belgium did too little to integrate them. They are not making an effort to get integrated either. But it’s never too late. I would propose:
    1) Reintroduction of mandatory military service
    2) Quotas on ethnic minorities in Belgian schools
    3) Strict control of Muslim cultural centres
    4) Tax incentives for those who convert to Christianity (That’s how Arabs converted to Islam populations from Maghreb)
    5) Promotion of European values
    6) A strong control on email and phone communications (no more prepaid sim cards) and preventive arrests of suspects
    7) Random security checks among ethnicities more inclined to terrorist activities
    8) Strengthen security services and avoid media leakages of judicial and police investigations
    9) Rehabilitation programmes for those teenagers who are in danger of radicalisation
    10) Rewarding and protection of those individuals, especially belonging to the Muslim community that are able to demonstrate active participation in de-radicalisation activities.

  4. avatar
    Bart Van Damme

    Like in many other countries, Belgium has had its fair share of so-called “progressives” shouting “racist!!!” whenever someone even dares imply that there might be an issue with a certain religion, or whenever someone places question marks next to the Holy Multicultural Society. Of course, not all foreigners or muslims are criminals (far from it), but it’s also not the fairytale utopia these “progressives” make it out to be. The result of this “racist!!” here and “fascist!!” there is that every measure of objective, nuanced debate has become impossible. Migrants are now by default the victim, and anyone daring to ask questions is suspect, racist, fascist.

    There is one political party, the “Vlaams Belang” (originally called “Vlaams Blok”) which has been addressing multiculturalist issues – and islam especially. While they have certainly been addressing issues that really needed to be addressed, the “solution” and rhetoric of this party and some of its representatives has been quite extreme and even racist (juridically speaking, because islam obviously is not a race). The bigger political parties in this country have seized this as an excuse to essentially ban the Vlaams Belang from any participation in the government. They use racism as the official reason, but anyone with half a brain knows that they are simply trying to protect their own position of power. After all, many of the original elements in the program of the Vlaams Belang for which they were branded as racists so long ago have actually long since been put into practice by the other parties (you can ignore the gorilla in the middle of the room only for so long).

    But it has also led to them strengthening their opposition to racism and whatever they can label as racism. Which, in turn, has pushed muslims and migrants even further in the role of the eternal victim. Nothing new there, the same happens in many other countries (which has led to the term “regressive left” being used nowadays), but I’m guessing that the way the “Vlaams Blok” has been countered has been quite detrimental to the situation.

  5. avatar
    EU reform- proactive

    What a total “surprise”, macabre and paradox- the hot seat of all EU politicians, thinkers, consolidators, qualifiers, unite’rs & enlargers? Of all places in Europe!!!

    Why Brussels, the darling & practical EU show piece of Merkel’s “Multi- Kulti” policy- located in the heart of Europe- within such exemplary, united & peaceful kingdom of Belgium?

    Should one blame it on Leopold’s ghost- or call as last resort on Congolese witchcraft to exorcise all evil EU spirits? Really, i am at wits end- maybe the best to ask would be the EU president JCJ?

  6. avatar
    Toni Muñiz

    Left wing progressive allowing everyone in and giving away benefits to migrants while quieting those that oppose(much like entire EU now). When you allowin migrants that have no intention of working or integrating and only live off benefits, then you have a breeding ground for problems. Put Islam in the picture and you have Molenbeek.

  7. avatar
    Danny Boy

    Every country has it’s share of lunatics,personally i’m fine with this lot traveling to Syria,it’s when they manage to slip back into Europe I have a problem with.Hopefully they’ll all be killed out there.

  8. avatar
    catherine benning

    The reason is, different cultures often despise the host where they feel they had to go to survive and resent the fact they were unable to support themselves within their own environment.

    It can emanate from finding it extremely difficult to accept their own teachings, and the culture they grew up in, was unable to fulfil its promise and rather than confront the truth they deny the obvious. Which leads to hatred of the ‘messenger.’ And that messenger is the land they chose to live in.

    It is complicated further by the fact that their leaders want to change the host culture to the one they left. Which feeds the fire of discontent within their midst and a longing to be free of it.

    Also remember, Islam can be taught as a rabid violent controller of their followers, which is heavily promoted from birth. The messages they send to their people are mixed and often contradictory, leading to mass confusion. Young men then decide to fight against that which they wish to use as the cause of their discontent. Somehow, the idea or notion that they can return to the land of their birth or cultural heritage escapes their aspirations, as it means taking responsibility for supporting their lifestyle themselves. And this is not what they want to do.

    • avatar
      EU reform- proactive

      Catherine, true!

      Belgium is dis-proportionally “wanting” on two fronts:

      • A solid federal structure for its cultural melting pot. Additionally burdened by a complex political & linguistic division between the Walloon’s and Flemish & the all forgotten (Muslim) immigrants.
      • An undersized security force wallowing in a belief of sufficient internal security. Its politicians rather playing war games on the global scene with NATO/US on Russia’s border- to “protect all of us” from the evil Russian “expansionist” spirits!

      A dire warning that could befall the whole EU- on a much greater scale- if not significantly reformed!

  9. avatar
    Enric Mestres Girbal

    I think Belgium has a national problem, so there are too many controling nothing. Do you know the “too many cooks spoil the food?”.

  10. avatar
    Antonios Forlidas

    The only responsibles are the insane stupid americans of the State Department and the Pentagon who destabilized the region.

    • avatar


  11. avatar
    Valentin Rotaru

    You guys created a perfect heaven for them allowing to pay less taxes and have more benefits than actual europeans with european values…thats why…molenbeek is their favourite neighbourhood now…it willbe hard to distinguish betweem the good and the bad ones but personally…there is nothing good in any religion

  12. avatar
    Stef Schuermans

    For those discussing, first go and check out the region. If i would grow up there i would also lose hope. Certainly when seeing ukkel a few kilometers away …

  13. avatar
    Shah Ji

    long live the politics of segregation, polarization and systematic discrimination. That’s y!

  14. avatar

    I don’t believe for a second that it is solely a matter of integration or the lack of intelligence around the matter. In London, the ones that explicitly state their affinities for terrorist groups like ISIS are those that are living on benefits and spreading Islam on the streets everyday as a job. They speak perfect English and get the most out of the British system; however, they are patrolling streets on benefit, trying to apply Sharia law, asking people to not drink or dress in a certain manner, as if it is an Islamic country. It couldn’t possibly be that these people were not integrated to the community. In my opinion, it starts with the understanding of the Qur’an itself. Many of the people who commit terrorists acts have not read the Qur’an, and if they have, they have not understood all of it, or have taken it too much literally. They learn most of what they know from community mosques. Therefore, if there is a particularly higher number of militants from Belgium, then they should be looking at the mosques and who tells them what during the Friday prayer. That is what makes the difference. In addition, it caught my attention that those from Brussels are mostly Algerian. Now if you look at the matter as not only referring to Muslims, but rather referring to the specific nationalities of the individuals, you will see that Algerians have suffered quite a lot under French rule, and after the referendum, where they had a unified vote of 99% for the French army to leave. This incident was not taken well, and the French army had killed so many Algerians after the referendum and so many had fled to Europe. We are talking millions here. So, if these historical facts are considered, I think we could know why France, or Brussels and why Algerians.

  15. avatar

    Stop the recruiters. Ban them on Facebook, remove their profiles. Arrest them when they approach young people in the community.

  16. avatar

    I am not into the fundamentalist Muslim culture at all but while living in Brussels I must say that Belgians aren’t the most welcoming nation either.

  17. avatar
    Jiri Kratky

    depression from rain and cold?… :) … I guess that there are no fighters from Italy or Spain :)

  18. avatar

    The reason is Belgian incompetence, combined with a predilection for jihad amongst some of Europe’s most disadvantaged and disillusioned muslim youth.

    Brussels is a disfuntional city in which expats don’t want to stay any longer than absolutely necessary, while immigrants suffer blatant marginalization and are rightly disillusioned. We should have far higher standards for a city that has become the de facto capital of Europe.

    Does that sound unfair to Brussels? Think about Berlin’s Kreuzberg or the Hague’s Schilderswijk, each of which is the “Molenbeek” of their respective country. Their share of immigrant and muslim population is comparable to Molenbeek’s, so why is it their share of jihadist networks is nowhere near Molenbeek’s?

    It seems to me the cause of the surge in jihadist networks is not Islam; the cause is systematic marginalization and disillusionment of sections of the population, which are susceptible to madness in the first place because of beliefs that are as firmly held as they are absurd (this goes for all religions).

  19. avatar
    Siva Nesan Jesu

    I have always had strange fears about Belgium. A few professors have philosophy emphasizing equal opportunity for all,without realizing the danger of including in the ALL, those who have Islamic agenda irrespective of how good democracy-welfare minded Belgium and others in EU are. Can the growth of Jihadists be avoided?

  20. avatar
    EU reform- proactive

    Unbelievable- using the latest telepathic technology from Silicon Valley:
    The EU president HAS responded- The latest from his EU Highness:

    “Especially in times of uncertainty, we need to use and offer our societies stability, direction and orientation,” Juncker said. Why now after 23 years of poli-sinning?

    When the “Eucharist” is administered- even political “Sinners in the Hands of many angry VOTERS” (rephrased) seem to admit that they are suddenly “with you on the way”!

    Too late my dear soul JCJ- only words- no deeds! Dare them & let the VOTERS vote- you either IN or OUT!

  21. avatar
    Sachina Barali

    Government Were very busy deporting innocent illigal People from the Lovely Kingdom of Belgium,,And they Forget What, there own Nationality were Doing?

  22. avatar
    Tarquin Farquhar

    According to recent research by Polity Index – the Francophone community in the EU is the key factor in so many Europeans going to fight in Syria!

    • avatar
      Jonathan V.D.

      According to your profile, you’re from Sofia, so I’ll try to make you realize it by comparison. Imagine this, tomorrow a few persons that have spent at least a few weeks in Nadezhda do an attack in Bucharest. According to the logic you seem to propose, that means that the Romanians should bomb Nadezhda.
      The differences?
      Well, I suppose Molenbeek has way more immigrants (and also about 30k more inhabitants). And Belgium and France have, at the very least, been unofficial allies since Belgium’s revolution in 1830 (with a few ups and downs ofc) and official allies since 1940). I do not know exactly how long Romania and Bulgaria have been allies, so you may correct me if I am wrong here, but I think it’s been since about 1941/2? (and if I recall correctly it’s not been exactly friendly terms at first?)
      Bombing your allies’ capital (even if only a district) generally ain’t considered the brightest of ideas.
      And well, what would they bomb? The entire district? The entire city (and screw the consequences if they hit their own MPs or people? Don’t forget that about 100k French work or live in Belgium and quite a few of those do that in Brussels)? There might not be that clear of a target after all and gravity can be an annoying thing at times.
      And I suppose there are other reasons as well (like ethics, training centra,…). God knows what those French are thinking right?

  23. avatar
    Katrin Mpakirtzi

    the center of Europe. The center of christianity… ”infidels” and…crusanders . Propaganda behind petroil…..gas and money between Usa Rusia and Islamists fascists who cant accept midenism of some europeans who laught with God and faith

  24. avatar
    Katrin Mpakirtzi

    the center of Europe. The center of christianity… ”infidels” and…crusanders . Propaganda behind petroil…..gas and money between Usa Rusia and Islamists fascists who cant accept midenism of some europeans who laught with God and faith

  25. avatar
    Marijus Stasiulis

    Brussel is in Belgistan.
    “Religion of Peace” would win, because they have more radical fanatics, then “Third Reich crusaders”.

  26. avatar

    That’s because Belgium has been too well-meaning and lenient with people. Why aren’t there any terror attacks in Saudi Arabia? Because as soon as someone says anything provoking the Saudi state, they lose their head. Simples. So they just don’t!

  27. avatar
    Mohammed Habahbeh

    Thats not true Yasmine, Belgian government kept downsizing the police force till there was no security enough…. Belgian government didn’t help integrating immigrants into the Belgian society ….
    Its a more like a social failure.

  28. avatar
    Philip M.

    Hi. Because Belgium is a country that allows death-via-euthanasia and no doubt a plethora of other morally unadvisable ‘choices’ that were deemed ‘acceptable’ practices by the evil Nazi perpetrators in concentration camps then what does this country expect but more evil to grow as consequences to the evil they already condone. If Belgian politicians want to discuss this evil phenomenon then they need to look at themselves first and the things they promote as morally feasible because they are the ones who initially are chipping away at hope by building upon a ‘culture of death’ – it’s called: needing to take the plank out of their own eye first. This is NOT to say that young people taking to extremist ideologies is ever justified – NO WAY – but it must still be said that if love and life was to be promoted instead of killing and death then the standard of morality might rise a little further down the line because the environment you nurture feeds the people you are responsible for.

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