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Expert Alert: UNL historian, political scientists offer insights on terrorism in Belgium

Contact: James LeSueur, professor of history, University of Nebraska-Lincoln,  402-472-3494 or

Courtney Hillebrecht, assistant professor of political science, University of Nebraska-Lincoln 402-472-5973 or

History professor James LeSueur has interviewed jihadists in Belgium as part of his study of radical Islam, terrorism and decolonization, particularly in Algeria.  He’s been working on a documentary and a book about the war on terror and radical Islam.

Courtney Hillebrecht, an assistant professor of political science, is an expert in human rights, international relations and international law.

Historic and demographic factors helped make Belgium a target, LeSueur said.

Belgium is recognized as one of Europe’s receptive countries toward immigrants and political refugees.  A significant portion of its immigrant population arrived as political refugees and asylum seekers. Its population includes many second- or third-generation immigrants.

“It has a pretty large, pretty active mosque community. ISIS recruits within those immigrant communities,” said Le Sueur, who has interviewed those threatened by radical Islamists, those with political asylum and suspected terrorists.  “There are a lot of illegal arms dealers in Belgium, many Jihad biographies point out that arms dealers are a significant part of the criminal population.”

Hillebrecht said increasing terrorism-related activity along the Brussels-Paris corridor has long been a concern.

“Indeed, this is not the first instance of terrorism or terrorism-related activity in Brussels over the past few years,” she said. “Operatives in Brussels helped to facilitate the Charlie Hebdo and November 2015 Paris attacks and the 2014 attack on The Jewish Museum of Belgium. “

Belgium has one of the highest rates of nationals leaving Europe to fight along ISIS and other Islamic extremist groups, she said.  Many attribute this to a particularly influential leader of Sharia4Belgium, a radical Islamic group that recruited young people to fight in Syria.

Some experts also say low employment and social exclusion have contributed to the radicalization of Muslims in Belgium, Hillebrecht added.

Yet Belgium has been slower to adopt the security measures taken by other European nations in the wake of the 9/11 terrorism attacks in the U.S.

“It’s got porous borders; these kinds of criminals can get from one country to another,” LeSueur said. “It hasn’t had the same kind of Islamist movements and it doesn’t have the police infrastructure of Germany, France and the U.K. to track extremists.”

“ISIS tends to attack countries that have operations abroad – it sees through the lens of who’s attacking them and they attack their attackers,” he said.  “France has been one of the main European nations to do so.”

In addition, ISIS thrives on media attention – both as a source of intelligence and to publicize their cause, Le Sueur said.  Belgium has called for a media black-out in the wake of Tuesday’s attacks.

That does not mean Belgium can expect to escape future terrorist attacks.

“This is the new reality of Europe,” Le Sueur said, noting that Belgium is the headquarters for the European Union as well as home base for many other international organizations.

Hillebrecht said the terrorist attack in Brussels had its roots in a number of factors.

Belgian authorities on Friday arrested Salah Abdeslam, a suspect in the November attacks in Paris that left 130 dead. Belgian authorities seem to have been anticipating some sort of reprisals at least since their hunt for the Paris suspects began.

“The loss of life in the Brussels attack, as with the attacks that came before it, is appalling and tragic,” Hillebrecht said.

“That said, this attack does not alter much in terms of national or international security,” she continued. “Instead, it points to three major, ongoing challenges.  First, it highlights the problem of ‘home-grown’ terrorist threats in Europe and the radicalization that is taking place within the EU.  Second, it reemphasizes ISIS’s growing reach and callous methods (consider, too, the recent attacks in Turkey).  Third, it accentuates the already tense environment within European states, as policymakers and the public reckon with a nearly unprecedented number of refugees entering the Eurozone and the rise of right-wing parties in response.“

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