On a total number of 591 people from Belgium who at least have tried to join an armed group in Syria/Iraq during the current conflict (including Belgians, people who resided in Belgium and/or were recruited by Belgian networks), 40 are certainly or very likely converts. That’s almost 7%.
This share is significantly lower than in some of the surrounding countries. In Germany, converts represent 12% of all foreign terrorist fighters, while in France their share amounts to 23%. We don’t have a solid explanation for the lower Belgian number, but the importance of the Zerkani network in the Belgian recruitment may be at play. That network consisted almost exclusively of people from North African descent, and thereby had very few converts in its ranks.
18 of the 40 Belgian converts have a fully European background — of whom 11 fully Belgian. 10 are children of a mixed marriage between a European and a non-European parent, 5 have fully non-European backgrounds, and 2 were adopted. For the remaining 5, we do not know. Foreign backgrounds include Italy (6), France (5), Congo (5), Algeria (1), Brazil (1), Haiti (1), Ivory Coast (1), Lebanon (1), Mali (1), Nigeria (1), the Philippines (1), Rwanda (1) and South Africa (1). Please note that one individual can have multiple foreign backgrounds.
26 of the converts are male, and 14 female. With 35% of the converts, the share of women is remarkably high. On the total number of Belgian foreign fighters, they only represent 15%. That may be at least partly caused by a higher number of females converting to Islam overall in Belgium. But while that overrepresentation of women is often cited, the exact proportions are not known apparently. M
Moreover, there appears to be a significant difference between both sexes in terms of ethnic background. While 75% of the males has some kind of non-European roots (due to mixed marriages or adoption), that is the case for only 8% of the females — and while females only count for 35% of our total number of converts, they do represent 82% of all those with a fully Belgian background.
Our sample may be too small for solid conclusions, but the impression exists that identity issues resulting from a multi-ethnic background (that doesn’t necessarily includes Islam already) are less important as a driver of conversion and radicalization for women than for men. It is noteworthy that a study of converted foreign fighters from Belgium and the Netherlands found that almost all the women were driven by very personal problems — i.e. not related to an ethnic, cultural or religious background — while the situation of the men was much more diverse.
Altogether, we do estimate the number of Belgian foreign fighters in the current Syrian-Iraqi conflict at 591 now, defining them as follows:
1) every person of Belgian origin, foreign origin but living in Belgium for a significant time, or clearly recruited by an entity operating from Belgium and departed to the conflict zone via Belgian soil; 2) having at least physically tried to reach the war zone of the Syrian-Iraqi conflict that started in March 2011; 3) with a clear intention to join a local fighting party there, be it as a fighter themselves or in any other role.
While it has to be stressed that this definition is broader than Sunni Islamists, actually 582 (or 98% of all our records) can be considered as such.
First of all we have to emphasize that adding individuals to our database doesn’t say anything about the phenomenon’s evolution in time. Such additions are rarely people who have recently left, but much more often older cases newly known to us.
That said, our current estimate includes 259 people in the ranks of the Islamic State — 69.4% of all 373 records for which an exact affiliation is known. The Syrian al-Qaeda affiliate formerly known as Jabhat an-Nusra, remains the second most important group with 50 people or 13.4%.
531 people have reached the battle zone — a rate of 89.8%. 42 or 7.1% were stopped abroad and 18 or 3% in Belgium. We do have information about 158 people who returned, including those who left but never reached their goal.
118 people were reportedly killed — 109 in the war zone and 9 others after their to Europe to commit a terrorist attack. It has to be stressed that most of the deaths could not be verified, and examples are known of fighters faking their death to lure security services.
That could for instance be the case with Redwane Hajaoui, considered dead last year by the mayor of his hometown Verviers.6 Very recently, a wanted notice allegedly issued by France started circulating on the internet, indicating that Hajaoui is alive and may be plotting an attack. But as long as the authenticity of that notice isn’t established, we keep him on our list.