Top 7 Things to know about Belgium anti-terror Op that left 2 Dead

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment)

Belgian police launched a counter-terrorism operation on Thursday in the eastern city of Verviers (pop. 56,000) near the German border. Verviers is one of the towns in Belgium that has a large number of Muslims, with many of the young men in that community being unemployed. Belgium is a country of roughly 11 million and has about half a million Muslims.

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Here’s what we know so far:

1. The operation was the result of surveillance that began well before the Paris attacks and seems unconnected to them. Belgian police developed information that a cell in Verviers was planning a major terrorist attack, and went in to forestall it. As they approached the apartment, which was above a bakery, they started receiving semi-automatic and handgun fire. Explosives also went off, though the sequence is not clear. The police killed two members of the cell and captured a third. Previous to the raid, Belgian police went into the Brussels suburb of Zaventem and arrested two suspected radical vigilantes.

2. After the three assailants were neutralized, police found 4 Kalashnikov machine guns, bomb-making equipment and police uniforms in the apartment.

3. The BBC learned from Mark Eeckhaut, a Belgian journalist, that the cell had been planning to attack a police station. (Presumably the uniforms in their apartment were intended to allow them into the building under a false flag).

4. The police also launched operations late on Thursday in the capital of Brussels and in nearby towns such as Sint-Jans-Molenbeek, Anderlecht and Schaerbeek.

5. The cell and its planned attack on police appear to have been a homegrown Belgian operation and for the moment no ties are suspected between it and the Kouashi Bros. cell in Paris.

6. Some members of the cell are said to have been returnees from fighting in Syria. About 310 Belgian Muslim young men appear to have gone to fight in Syria, with 40 having been killed there and 170 still in the field. About 100 have returned to Belgium.

7. Note that 310 volunteers for Syria out of some 500,000 Muslims is not very many, contrary to what some press reports imply. It is a fraction of a percent. You can get 300 people to believe almost anything (e.g. Heaven’s Gate ). Moreover, there are all kinds of rebel groups fighting the government in Syria, and you can’t just assume that the 100 returnees all served with al-Qaeda or Daesh (ISIS or ISIL). Several of the major rebel groups in Syria that they would have joined are extremist. The Support Front or Jabhat al-Nusra is an al-Qaeda affiliate. Daesh controls much of eastern Syria now. The Saudi-backed Islamic Front in Aleppo has become more and more extreme. However, in the past 4 years or so there have been moderate and even secular-minded rebel groups, so that they are returnees does not necessarily mean they are al-Qaeda. It would matter with which group they fought. There is lots of evidence that many young men come back from Syria to Europe, having been deeply disappointed with the mindless violence and corruption of the al-Qaeda offshoots.

8. That fringe of Belgian Muslims which admire the Support Front or kindred groups are likely especially angered that Belgian F-16s have flown several missions against Daesh in Syria and Iraq.


Related video:

AFP: “Two dead in Belgium raid on ‘Syria terror group'”

17 Responses

  1. Zaventem is not a suburb of Brussels, but a town near Brussels.
    Sint-Jans-Molenbeek, Anderlecht and Schaerbeek are not towns near Brussels, but Brussels communes.

  2. Minor correction: Kalashnikov doesn’t mean “machine gun” in the sense that most people would use the term. They are merely automatic rifles. They may be fully automatic, as opposed to the more-common (among civilians) semi-automatic, but they have fairly small magazines, are chambered for a regular rifle cartridge, and are what you would expect an infantryman to carry. Nothing more.

  3. The Guardian is reporting 13 additional terrorist suspects have been arrested. Nine of those were in Sint-Jans-Molenbeck. In addition to weapons, ammunition and uniforms, the police also found walkie-talkies, radios, mobile phones and a “significant amount of money.” This was a well planned, sophisticated operation….

  4. Half a million out of 11 million is less than 5%, and of these only 3 are the cause of the constant fuss made of the tiny number of men in this type of crime (like the three out of 7 million Muslims in France) leaves out all the other crimes, which seem unimportant compared to the concentration on “Islamic terror”, the latest fear for all us white guys.
    As Tomdispatch reports, Americans are more likely to be killed by a toddler than a terrorist, yet the high alerts and fearmongering,allied with hate speech as in Charlies and their followers, ensure peace and tolerance never become the norm.

    • The Surveillance-Security State is big business. To keep the taxpayers shelling out massive amounts of money it is important to have Surveillance-Security State Theater regularly.

  5. Dear mister Cole, there are unconfirmed reports now in Belgian and French press that there actually is a link: weapons. The Charlie Hebdo attackers are suspected to have bought weapons from the “neutralized” Belgian jihadists.

  6. Verviers is one of the towns in Belgium that has a large number of Muslims, with many of the young men in that community being unemployed.

    Among the more responsible commentators discussing the recent violence in Paris is a common theme that poverty and discrimination are prime motivators for such violence.

    Aristotle advised more than two millennia ago that poverty is the parent of crime and revolution. Some lessons seem to take a long time to sink in while our current version of capitalism is engaged in creating more poverty.

  7. If Saudi-Wahabbi money is funding these terrorists, why are the leaders of the threatened nations going after the dupes and jihadists and not the sponsors?

    • The Saudis have spent about $100 billion spreading Wahabism around the world since the early 80’s. They are the root cause of this modern day fanaticism. Before the spread of Wahabism, there was no radical movement against the West.

    • Perhaps the leaders of the West secretly understand that the survival of the Saudi monarchy – and its financial arrangements with the West – require that the king be seen to offset that disloyalty to Moslem society by narrowly funding pointless vengeance. The terrorists kill people, but they don’t reduce the volume of trade that keeps the king and the West going. Saudi continues to prop up the US $, and its votes in OPEC offset those of countries that oppose the West. The gamble for the king is that these terrorists keep being directed overseas instead of overthrowing the Saud dynasty itself.
      Think of it as a tribute or tax on the essential illegitimacy of the Saudi monarchy and its hypocritical alliance with a capitalism that supports a mostly-Christian First World and Israel.

  8. Out of the 300+ Belgians fighting in Syria, how many have been paid and trained by either the Saudis, Israelis, France, or the USA?

    The West is supporting the Jihadists….again!
    Is this on purpose?

    • The U.S government has not supported jihadist groups – but only secular anti-Assad groups – such as the Free Syrian Army.

      Some individual Americans that have gone to Syria as volunteers – such as Eric Harroun and Nicole Mansfield – have found themselves fighting with Jabhat al-Nusra, the al-Qaeda affiliate, in that region.

      Harroun, a former U.S. Army soldier, was identified by his father as a CIA operative and later received a $100.00 fine by a federal judge after being plea-convicted of an illegal munitions transfer. Mansfield, a mother from Flint, Michigan in her early 30s, was killed in action by the Syrian army.

      • The US, by supporting any group fighting the Assad regime, is helping the jihadists. It’s just that simple. It’s a new twist on the old adage, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Only, this time it’s “The enemy (Free Syrian Army) of my enemy (Assad) is my other enemy’s (jihadists) helper.”

  9. How do the foreign fighters get to Syria Juan? Do they fly directly or…? Is there not a record that might raise suspicion upon return?

    • The foreign fighters typically infiltrate from Turkey. I was talking to an Iraqi at a New Years Eve party. He told me that Turkey is doing little to staunch the flow for fighters.

  10. Dear Mr. Cole,

    Belgium has not deployed F-16s in Syria, “only” in Iraq, which is horrible enough. The Belgian government refrained from any direct actions in Syria as it considers it in conflict with international law (The Iraqi government formally requested the foreign aggression, in opposition to the Syrian regime which only requested the presence of Hizbullah forces).

    Kind regards,

  11. The U.S. has never supported secular independent nationalism liberal-left (think Egypt’s Nasser and Iran’s Mossadeq) for fear that it might lead to a Pan-Arab movement. The same is true with Indonesia in the 1965 bloodbath which saw close to a million people killed who were a combination of liberals, leftists and communists (i.e. PKI), allowing Suharto to assume power.

    As the Pentagon Papers describe in great detail, the Indochinese wars were mainly to prevent a bad example — the “rot in the barrel” — from spreading across East Asia; and it was largely successful in that objective since Indonesia was prevented from realizing the goals of the 1955 Bandung Conference. Plus, all of the Southeast Asian states became part of our Japan-led Pacific political economy-security web.

    The U.S. has always supported extremist governments. So-called “moderate” states are those who do our bidding at the expense of their domestic population. The Arab Spring scared Washington and efforts were made to prevent it from upsetting the balance of power favorable to U.S. interests.

    The problem is that failed states in Mesopotamia (Iraq and Syria) and in North Africa (Yemen and Tunisia) have been opportunistically taken over by ISIS and other extremist groups who often compete with one another for power and influence.

    The corruption of the installed leaders of Iraq by the U.S. meant that most people in the north were unable to get water and electricity. ISIS delivered what they needed and there seems to have been a appreciation for that but the local populations in northern Iraq don’t seem keen to support ISIS because of their extremist behavior (that might have once been ideological but now seems to be more like a criminal enterprise, one very sophisticated.)

    ISIS poach oil from Kurdistan, a region fraught with complexities since Turkey represses its Kurdish population.. I think Turkey also doesn’t want to get dragged into an unremitting, brutal war with ISIS so the porous borders allow the sail of oil and other commodities that funds ISIS. Plus, ISIS has been shrewd in buying up infrastructure and employing former Baathist civil servants and military soldiers and officers who were dismissed after the American invasion. There is even credible evidence that ISIS will be issuing its own currency (The Islamic dinar) soon. Here’s an article from the Guardian: link to

    In an article from the Guardian on Jan. 16th, it was reported that “Verviers as a hotbed of radical Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas adherents. In Jalhay, in the forests of the Ardennes south-east of Verviers, there was a training camp for Belgian and Dutch jihadis.” link to

    But why Verviers? It’s a post-industrial city with greater alienation than radicalization. But the group Sharia4Belgium has been actively trying to recruit these disaffected young men. See the article in The Independent from Jan. 16th. link to

    Fortunately, an extremely small percentage of young men from Western Europe (particularly France, Belgium and Germany) are attracted to these extremist, violent groups and there has been some success by several fathers in contacting and meeting their sons who fled home to join the jihadist movement in Syria via Turkey. From the BBC: link to

    I guess the question of all us must ask is how Western European leaders and the social institutions of their countries can increase the percentage of nationals born in their countries who rarely make it to university or to the more elite trade schools, then suffer from chronic underemployment and social exclusion.
    Europe has a very poor record of accomplishment in this regard.

    Despite major social inequalities that remain in the U.S., the Civil Rights movement had a profound effect on increasing access to higher education among minorities and affirmative action has been a huge respect even if there are attempts to dismantle it by the right-wing politicos. But Europe has not yet devised a comprehensive plan to do anything even tepid despite sharp demographic changes that require accepting multiculturalism as a social fact with profound economic implications and political consequences.

    In the process, maybe we can begin to acknowledge that the 1 billion plus Muslims aren’t a monolithic group intent on violence despite less than .0001% who join the conflicts in Mesopotamia as overseas fighters and occasionally attempt to “sharpen the contradictions” in their countries of birth: Europe.

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