New Belgian database of “foreign fighters”

Returning from a visit to the United States, where he took part in the White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremism, the Belgian Security and Home Affairs Minister, Jan Jambon, announced this week the creation of a new database on jihadists. The database will include information on the 380 persons known to have connections with terrorists groups affiliated with the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The minister also declared that the archive data bank used in the US to counter terrorism would serve as an inspiration to Belgium. The database will be accessible by police and prosecutors at all levels of government.

The measure comes at a time of intense reflection by European leaders on ways to step up coordination and information sharing on the so-called “foreign fighters”. Of the estimated 20,000 of those present in Syria, at least 3,000 are believed to be Europeans and a 100 from the US. Last month, European ministers of interior agreed in Riga, Latvia, to reinforce border controls for people entering the Schengen area and to collect and register air passengers’ data. This measure clashes with existing regulations on data protection.

Compared to its small population of 11 million people, Belgium is believed to have produced the highest number of foreign fighters per head in the EU. The radical organization Sharia4Belgium, which has called to turn the country into a caliphate, has recruited and trained young European Muslims to become jihadists and fight in Syria. The organization has now been declared “terrorist” by the Belgian courts and its members have been put on trial. Meanwhile, social studies argue that the high number of jihadists in Belgium is due to the failure of the Belgian social integration model.

It is hoped that the database containing information on “foreign fighters” will allow for a better and more efficient coordination among intelligence and law enforcement authorities in Belgium and beyond. The problem, though, remains that these fighters for ISIS are not foreign in Belgium or Europe, but citizens who have become radicalized. With some women also joining the jihadist cause, as shown by the ongoing search for three British Muslim girls headed to Syria, the number of potential “foreign fighters” may multiply further.

A delicate balance needs to be struck between law enforcement, including intelligence gathering and prevention, on the one hand, and respect for human rights, inclusion and social cohesion, on the other. Last week’s condemnation of Poland by the European Court of Human Rights for its complicity in torture performed by CIA on its soil on suspected terrorists shows that the rule of law remains strong in Europe but also what should not be done if a just cause of crime prevention is to remain just.

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