BRUSSELS — Pain and confusion mix on Geraldine’s tear-stained face as she recounts how her son Anis, an 18-year-old who grew up half-Belgian and half-Moroccan in one of this city’s notorious Muslim enclaves, went off to Syria and died fighting with the Islamic State group.
But the mother’s sorrow turns quickly to anger when she reveals that the jihadi recruiter who lured her son into the terrorist group’s grip is still operating freely in Belgium.
“The recruiter was the son of an imam,” said Geraldine, who requested that her last name not be revealed. “In June, I told the police. They told me not to say his name publicly. They said he’s been interviewed and they are reopening the case.”
The anguished mother’s predicament stabs at the heart of the Islamic State crisis in Europe. Political and law enforcement authorities across the Continent are struggling to confront the depth of the terrorist group’s recruiting hooks in disaffected Muslim enclaves.
On the front lines are Paris and Brussels, where first- and second-generation North Africans account for 15 percent and 26 percent of the population, respectively. Authorities in both capitals have faced no shortage of criticism for failing to integrate Muslim residents into the societal fabric, resulting in a cohort of disenfranchised young men who are worryingly open to a message of radicalism.
Along with that temptation is the European Union’s wider problem of a security apparatus that is ill-equipped to deal with the threat of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS and ISIL. Fighters return home from Syria and Iraq with an eye toward sliding easily across Europe’s porous borders and recruiting another generation of followers to carry out violent jihad without leaving their local neighborhoods.
Underfunded, uncoordinated and poorly trained police in several nations, coupled with the lack of a strong central counterterrorism system and the outright failure of EU member states to share basic data on suspected terrorists and recruiters, fuel a situation that American officials say is only getting worse.
“I don’t like saying it, but there’s no question Europe’s going to get hit by more attacks,” said one U.S. lawmaker, who has held high-level meetings with intelligence officials from several European nations during recent months.
The lawmaker spoke on the condition of anonymity with The Washington Times early this summer — during the initial reporting for this special series of articles examining hot spots in the war against terrorism that President Obama and allied leaders have yet to control, a war that will be handed over as the foreign policy priority for whoever wins the presidency in November.
The U.S. lawmaker’s grim warning came to pass in shocking fashion in mid-July, when an Islamic State-inspired attacker of Tunisian descent mowed down crowds of Bastille Day revelers with a truck in the French city of Nice. Eighty-five people died. Ten were children and teenagers.
A third of the victims were Muslim.
The Islamic State quickly claimed credit, saying its “soldiers” were also responsible for a wave of smaller but no less grisly incidents that followed: a train attack by an ax-wielding 17-year-old Afghan boy in Germany; a suicide bombing by a 27-year-old Syrian asylum seeker, also in Germany; and an assault by two French teens of Algerian descent who videotaped themselves slitting the throat of an 86-year-old Catholic priest in Normandy.
Intelligence officials say it’s unclear whether the tactics mark a definitive shift to less-sophisticated “lone-wolf” attacks, but Europeans have remained on edge for months in the wake of brutal assaults in Paris and on the Brussels airport and subway.
European nations have struggled to deploy adequate resources to confront the rising threat.
France has kept 10,000 military troops deployed around its interior since November’s street attacks, and police have carried out more than 4,000, often chaotic, raids on suspected jihadi hideouts. President Francois Hollande has authorized the searches of homes without warrants under a state of emergency decree.
Brussels authorities say the alert level is just as high, with 134 terrorism-related arrests during the first five months of the year, a nearly 25 percent increase over last year.
Police are also quick to tout how the nation’s politicians, notoriously riven by Dutch-French ethnic and language divides, responded to the Brussels attacks in unprecedented fashion by pushing through long-delayed legislation to allow counterterrorism raids at night.
The absence of such raids outraged American and British intelligence officials, who were attempting to advise Belgians on internal security.
“It used to be forbidden to do home searches between 9 p.m. and 5 a.m.,” Federal Police spokesman Peter De Waele told The Times. “The terrorists knew they could do whatever they wanted after 9 p.m. Now we can give them the feeling that they’re never safe.”
Critics say the French and Belgian counterterrorism responses still fall short.
“Between the two nations, it’s not been anywhere near as good as it could be and it’s clear in both that counterterrorism intelligence is too fragmented and needs to be more aggregated,” said Nigel Inkster, a former high-level official of MI6, the British foreign intelligence service.
Mr. Inkster, now an analyst with the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said Belgian police in particular have simply failed to engage with the nation’s large and growing Muslim population from North Africa, even though the Muslim enclaves have been there for more than a generation. “I’m not sure the Belgian security services have a single Arabic speaker on their books,” he said.
Belgium has struggled to track jihadi recruiters in areas such as Molenbeek St. Jean. At least three of the men who carried out the Paris attacks in November grew up and still lived in the heavily Muslim enclave.
Molenbeek is home to some 95,000 people, and local officials say it has at least 24 mosques. Each of those mosques has three or four imams, many of whom are known to interact only in Arabic.
Although most of the imams have joined a campaign to reject extremism and the lure of the Islamic State, local officials in Molenbeek say elusive networks of jihadi recruiters linger on the periphery of several of the mosques.
When Geraldine spoke of her son’s fatal involvement with the Islamic State over the summer, she did so from a discreet location in Molenbeek.
For years, Molenbeek was a flashpoint on the “Jihadi Superhighway,” through which at least 3,000 young men have traveled from Western Europe to the Middle East.
Most of the recruits flew commercially right out of major EU airports to Turkey before climbing into Islamic State cars for the trip to the group’s “caliphate” across the border in Syria and Iraq. That was the path Geraldine’s son Anis took in January 2014.
Although he grew up with little enthusiasm for the religion, he suddenly became infatuated with Islam, his mother recalled. “The radicalization of my son took four months,” said Geraldine, who converted to Islam herself in the early 1990s when she met and fell in love with her husband, a Belgian man of Moroccan descent.
The couple thought little of it when their son “suddenly started praying more,” said Geraldine, who wore a modest blue Islamic-style blouse and no headscarf when she spoke with The Times in July. “He went from being a kid who wouldn’t get up in the morning to pray or to go to mosque, to praying a lot and then suddenly speaking about Palestine.”
She believed it was all part of her son’s growing-up and that the best thing would be to talk to him about it. “But then he came in one day saying, ‘Do you see [Syrian President Bashar Assad] killing people and nobody is doing anything about it? I must go and help those people. It is my role,’” Geraldine said. “The last signal was that he began speaking about the Koran and arguing with us about it. He was focused on some sentences that said you can make jihad, and he was saying, ‘See, this justifies killing and jihad and you must help suffering people.’”
Anis disappeared soon afterward.
Geraldine was sure he had left for Syria, so she went to the police to report his name and ask that he be prevented from boarding a flight out of Belgium. She said police declined her request because Anis had turned 18.
Then came an the anonymous call. A voice told Geraldine that her son was in Turkey and would soon go to Syria. If she wanted to speak with him, she would have to call back in three hours. So began a series of painful Skype calls, over the course of which Anis told his mother that he was in Syria to “help refugees.”
Through tears, she believed him.
At first, Geraldine said, she believed her son was in Aleppo, but then she discovered he was in Raqqa. The Islamic State declared the Syrian city the capital of its caliphate the very month Anis left Brussels.
All she had was his word for more than a year, until February 2015, when she received a message on her phone that said: “Are you the mother of Anis? You must be proud. He is a lion.”
The message said Anis was killed by an American airstrike while guarding the airport at Deir el-Zour, an Islamic State-controlled city southeast of Raqqa.
With no way to confirm their son’s death, the process of mourning has been painfully surreal for Geraldine and her husband.
Many in Molenbeek’s Muslim community have rejected them. “An imam from our mosque told me, ‘I don’t want to pray for your son because he’s a mujahedeen. I won’t pray for him,” Geraldine said in tears.
Others supported the grieving mother, who has spent the past two years trying to piece together how it all happened. While she refused to give a name or other details, she said she is certain Anis was recruited by the son of an imam from one of the many mosques in Molenbeek.
“My son is dead, and the recruiter is still alive?” Geraldine asked incredulously. “We must stop him because I’m sure he’s still talking to other young people and indoctrinating them.”
Belgian Federal Police spokesman Peter De Waele declined to comment but said it “is possible” that police are watching suspected jihadi recruiters.
A small clutch of social workers in Molenbeek and other Muslim enclaves across Belgium are waging a ground-level war against radicalization, but it is an uphill battle at best.
It difficult to identify jihadi recruiters who “come into the neighborhood from outside and hang around the exterior of mosques, or linger in parks to make contact with young people,” said Sarah Turine, Molenbeek’s deputy mayor, who runs programs for young people.
“It’s very fluid,” Ms. Turine said. “The recruiters come and go, they speak French, they show up three or four times to Friday prayers then disappear. It’s hard for imams or others to identify them and report them to police.”
More worrisome, she said, is how the goals of recruiters have shifted over the past year toward encouraging young men to carry out attacks at home rather than risk being caught trying to travel outside the European Union.
“Our focus for some time was on stopping fighters from going to Syria, but what we realized with the Paris and Brussels attacks is that many of the attackers never actually went,” said Ms. Turine, who added that Belgium’s political leaders seem unable to comprehend the scope of the problem and the need to address the disaffected youths.
“The government is focused solely on security,” she said. “We can’t succeed against radicalism if we only focus on security. We need more prevention to help young people find their place here.”
Ms. Turine’s staff works out of six youth centers peppered around Molenbeek. “What we need are more funds to engage more social workers,” she said. “The regional government announced in June that they would put [$3.3 million] into de-radicalization. But we still have no info about it. They say they want a regional-level program.”
But Ms. Turine said her office has held successful events challenging the credibility of jihadi propaganda. “It could be theater, movies or conferences,” she said.
On three occasions, she said, her staff brought together crowds of Molenbeek youths for question-and-answer sessions with Mourad Benchellali.
In 2001, when Mr. Benchellali was 19, he was unknowingly lured from France to an al Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan and later spent 30 months imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay. He has written a book on how young people can resist the lure of jihadi recruiters.
“Our goal,” said Ms. Turine, “is to sterilize the ground where ISIS is coming to plant its seeds here.”
An EU ‘quagmire’
Away from the ground-level fight against radicalization, the higher-level push by the 28 EU members to embrace a collective and forward-leaning counterterrorism policy is also struggling.
In several background interviews, U.S. and European officials described a “quagmire” within the union’s vast bureaucracy when it comes to creating a strong multinational counterterrorism partnership. “At this point, it’s not so much about awareness-building anymore,” said one high-level American official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity with The Times.
“It’s about information-sharing between partners,” said the official.
U.S. officials argue that jihadis holding EU passports are at the core of Europe’s terrorism threat. The fighters return from the Middle East and exploit the union’s open-border policy to set up clandestine recruiting and operations cells.
But the lack of requirement on EU member states to share and cross-analyze files on suspected terrorists from different nations has hurt the effort even to quantify the scale of the problem.
It was only in January that the European Union formally introduced the European Counterterrorism Center to serve as “an enhanced central information hub by which the member states can increase information sharing and operational coordination.”
But the center has a staff of fewer than 40 people, and participation by EU members is entirely voluntary.
As a result, critics say, the fight has not been fully engaged.
“Europol is still a relatively weak agency, and it’s dependent on the extent to which nation states are willing to pool and share intelligence with it,” said Mr. Inkster, the former MI6 official. “Intelligence services proper do not have that much enthusiasm for it, although that may be changing.”
The EU push to improve on counterterrorism has drawn guarded praise from the Obama administration, including from retired Air Force Brig. Gen. Francis X. Taylor, the Department of Homeland Security’s undersecretary for intelligence and analysis.
“While we have made progress, there’s still a ton of work to do to improve [the] sharing both between the EU and the U.S., but also within the EU,” Mr. Taylor said at an Aug. 29 discussion hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
“You can’t rest on your laurels,” he said. “One piece of information not shared could be the basis of a very successful terrorist attack.”
Mr. Inkster offered a similar assessment of the European Union’s announcement in April of an agreement — after years of deliberation — on the Passenger Name Record initiative, which would oblige international airlines to hand over passenger data to intelligence services for any commercial flight landing within the bloc’s borders.
After a meeting in June, EU justice ministers declared that members have “two years to transpose the legislation into their national laws.”
“What the justice ministers hammered out doesn’t have in and of itself a force of law,” said Mr. Inkster. “It’s just recommendations, and these recommendations need to be nationalized, and that takes time.
“The EU,” he said, “should be moving faster.”
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