Return of Syrian Fighters Is Background to Brussels Shooting

Whether the shooter acted on his own or as part of a network, the fact remains that Jews and Israelis were the first targets of a Syrian civil war graduate.

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Outside the Jewish museum in Brussels following an attack that killed an Israeli couple and a French national.
Outside the Jewish museum in Brussels following an attack that killed an Israeli couple and a French national.Credit: AFP
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

BRUSSELS -- The attack at the Jewish museum in Brussels two weeks ago, in which two Israelis, Mira and Emanuel Riva, and a French national, Dominique Chabrier, were murdered, and a museum employee, Alexandre Strens, was severely wounded, came at an awkward time for the Belgians, on the eve of the federal and the European Parliament elections.

The manhunt for the shooter and the investigation of the incident took place against a backdrop of coalition-building, continental infighting over the election of a new president for the European Commission and preparations for the G7 summit, which was moved to Brussels after Russia, the original host, was expelled from the nations' club over its annexation of Crimea. The intensified security surrounding the Jewish community's buildings - with dozens of policemen carrying submachine-guns - mixed with the security operation for heads of state arriving in the Belgian capital.

There was a certain sense of irony that little Belgium - not a G7 member itself – was only the host of these events, and not a full participant. The alleged killer is a French citizen who received his training in Syria and the victims were Israeli and French.

Home to European Union institutions and NATO headquarters, Brussels has served as a hub for European politics for decades. Meanwhile, its own local politics and its deep social divides between French and Flemish speakers and between the growing-yet-isolated Muslim community, have faded a bit into the background. Leaders of Brussels' Jewish community complained, quietly, that the Belgian media had not ascribed sufficient importance to the murders in the heart of its capital and that the condemnations by the nation's top politicians could have been stronger.

Despite that Mehdi Nemmouche, the suspect in the Jewish museum shooting, is a French national and the fact that he was apprehended in faraway Marseilles, Belgian politicians and security officials were willing to admit that the security crisis threatening to engulf Europe with hundreds, if not thousands, of Muslim Jihadist volunteers who are now returning home after fighting in the Syrian civil war, is also theirs.

Only a couple of weeks ago two Muslim women were arrested at Brussels Airport and charged with planning to fly to Syria and take part in terrorist activities. On the next day, 19 Muslim citizens were convicted in Belgium court of aiding or taking part in terrorist activities, this time in war-torn Somalia. They were sentenced to prison terms of between ten months and twenty years. One could also see as ironic the fact that while the Assad regime continues to murder thousands of Syrians, Europe's main concern is the returning volunteers.

Nemmouche continues to remain silent during questioning in Paris, as the question marks over his alleged involvement in the attack remain. For instance, how did he get hold of the AK-47 assault rifle and handgun that were used in the shooting? A possible answer would be through a network previously ran by Hakim Benladghem, a French citizen who was killed in a police chase and shootout in March 2013. Benladghem was suspected of amassing weapons through theft and purchase in both Belgium and France. A weapons cache, which included an assault rifle and a sub-machine gun, was found by police in his apartment. In the past, he had traveled to Syria and tried, without success, to enter the Gaza Strip.

Small Belgium has contributed its share of fighters in Syria - with assessments ranging as high as 300 citizens who fought or are still fighting there. These are just one contingent out of what some experts believe could be as many as 2,000 Muslim volunteers from Western Europe.

Some of them are believed to be fighting in the ranks of Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant - an organization that used to be affiliated with Al-Qaida but since broke with the movement and became independent and more radical. In recent months, ISIS has been using foreign fighters to carry out suicide bombing missions, using their identity to attract more international media attention to their attacks.

A special report by Stirling Assynt, a corporate intelligence firm based in London, raises the possibility that, as part of its competition with Al-Qaida, ISIS may focus some of its effort and resources on Europe, seeking targets that could bring it recognition and praise in Jihadist circles.

Meeting this week in Brussels with a delegation of Jewish leaders headed by World Jewish Congress President Ronald Lauder, Belgian Interior Minister Joelle Milquet repeatedly said that the museum shooter had acted as a "lone wolf," but terror experts are not ruling out the possibility that Nemmouche, who allegedly had an ISIS flag in his bag while carrying out the attack, was operating on behalf of the organization - carrying out its first operation on European soil.

The amateurish way in which Nemmouche acted after the shooting - taking a bus that was liable to be inspected for drug-smuggling and holding on to the weapons used in the attack - led to his capture. However, the fact that his target was the only building in Brussels identified with the Jewish community that didn't have any security at the entrance could indicate a degree of sophistication in planning. No organization has yet taken responsibility for the attack, but this is in line with the practice by Al-Qaida-affiliated groups not to rush and take credit for terror operations.

Whether Nemmouche did act on his own or was a member of a larger network - what is clear is that Jews and Israelis are the first in Europe to be targeted by a "graduate" of the Syrian civil war. Synagogues, Jewish schools and community centers in Western Europe have long been under serious security; now community leaders need to decide whether to intensify that security.

“We need to protect Jewish sites, but as a Belgian Jew I don’t want to live in a ghetto guarded permanently by police," Maurice Sosnowski, president of the Coordinating Committee of Jewish Organizations in Belgium said.

Last week, Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky visited Brussels and gave the local community 40,000 Euros from an agency fund for community safety. "It's a bit pathetic," said one Jewish leader. "You can't do much with that sum, and as Belgian citizens we expect our government to start bearing the costs of security. It's not the job of the Jewish Agency or the State of Israel." 

Gunman who opened fire at the Jewish museum in Brussels on May 24, 2014. The Belgian cummunity heads warns that more attacks should be expected.Credit: AFP

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