In its 158th book, Outlooks from Belgium to Combat Extremism and Terrorism, (February 2020) the Al-Mesbar Studies and Research Center presents an in-depth review of the Belgian experience in combating extremism, with a particular focus on the prison system and surveillance of Belgian repatriates from international hotbeds of extremism.
The book seeks to convey the Belgian experience through the lens of experts intimately involved in dealing with this issue. The book also discusses the costs of ignoring the complex causes of violent extremism.
Recent historical experience has indicated that Islamist activists in various countries have exploited prisons for recruitment purposes, effectively transforming them into incubators for extremism. One of the more intractable aspects of the radicalization problem confronted by many European countries, including Belgium, is the phenomenon of so-called “foreign fighters” returning to Europe from terrorist strongholds abroad. Despite the penalty of lengthy prison terms, high risks remain. These emanate chiefly from imprisoned radicals who seek to enlist new recruits within prison, compounding European anxiety. These anxieties stem chiefly from a new generation of Islamists, crossing borders and continents, who are returning to Europe from hotbeds of jihadist activity in the Middle East. Above all there are the former members of Daesh, who are even more violent, dangerous, and bloodthirsty than previous generations of transnational jihadists.
The book provides an analysis of how the Belgian criminal justice system has dealt with the problem of terrorism and tailored its applications of the relevant laws. It touches on the methods and categories of detention, security, and supervisory procedures within the Belgian prison system, and analyzes punishment for terrorism-related crimes as stipulated by Belgian law. The study focusing on the legal aspects notes that “It is not in society’s interest to release a dangerous extremist, because there is very little risk tolerance for the type of crimes committed by extremists. At the same time, it is in no one’s interest to imprison a person without evaluation and rehabilitation. It is both right and necessary to conduct diagnostic evaluations of prisoners.”
For years, Belgium has been relying on an integrated management strategy to combat and eliminate extremism. This model is widely considered an ideal method for government and non-government agencies to cooperate and coordinate in counterterrorism efforts. In this context, the book outlines the model plan relied upon by the government in Brussels for Belgian prisons. Among its key features is a priority of engaging local communities, the education sector, and religious organizations in order to prevent and limit the spread of militancy among prisoners as well as establish effective structures for consultation and coordination. The model also stresses the importance of improving prison conditions and working on a better early detection process targeting individuals vulnerable to extremism, and a policy of identifying and detaining prisoners in the appropriate ward.
From a psychological point of view, the book presents the ideological tendency and individual psychological inclinations towards radicalism — in the Belgian experience — which is seen as a renewable, dynamic process involving different stages, and which implies a range of diverse outcomes and outliers. The psychoanalytical study — which focuses in large part on repatriates from Syria — notes that the social context plays a fundamental role. As for the ideological influences, within the range of contingent circumstances, they too play a role.
In addition, for the sake of a broader strategy, the book attaches high importance to the role of internet platforms in eliminating extremism and addressing the European experience, including the Belgian experience. The study’s author provides a set of proposals for distance learning in order to tackle the cancer of extremism in prisons. This is particularly timely in light of the lack of sufficient educational cadres capable of carrying out the task in its traditional form. Critical resources in this arena include: the use of audio and visual materials, the development of electronic protective programs, the use of artificial intelligence programs to evaluate the extent of the prisoners’ extremism, and calibrating a menu of rehabilitation programs.
The book examines the experience of “The Faculty for Comparative Study of Religions and Humanism,” seeking a blueprint for re-establishing coexistence and tolerance from an academic perspective and translating it into social reality. Specialists in de-radicalization realize that education and upbringing both represent two essential factors in reducing radicalism and religious violence. And, several European countries – chief among them is Belgium – have accumulated important experience in this area. Therefore, while a security aspect of the response is important, it is not sufficient. Security responses alone cannot address the underlying conditions which drive youth to join terrorist groups and organizations. Instead, the power of persuasion through high-quality education to address radicalization is highly needed, as education is among the most effective preventive measures.
The book also examines “mentor” models of thinking in considering the Belgian model, and their understanding of the texts with which they engage in dialogue with extremists. In addition, the book discusses mentor efforts to use the flexibility latent in Islamic texts in order to remove them from the quiver of extremist ideologues.
In conclusion, Al-Mesbar Studies and Research Center extends its thanks to all the participants in the book, especially its colleague Ibrahim Litus, who prepared this edition.