An ‘Islamist Pit Stop’ in the Heart of the EU
How inequality and government dysfunction combined to turn the small Brussels neighborhood of Molenbeek into a hotbed for terrorist activity.
BRUSSELS — The immigrant neighborhood of Molenbeek is just a 20-minute subway hop from the Belgian capital’s European Quarter, where EU interior ministers will meet Friday to discuss how to deal with Europe’s terrorist threat after the Nov. 13 Paris attacks.
Separated from the historical center of town by a breezy canal, parts of Molenbeek are unthreatening enough in the daytime. New loft developments aimed at young urbanites have sprouted up on both sides of the canal in recent years, along with trendy cafés and furniture shops. A former brewery is being converted into an environmentally friendly hotel. And at the bustling market near Parvis St.-Jean-Baptiste on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Sundays, you can buy pickled lemons and fresh harira at the fruit and vegetable stalls and savor freshly cooked samosas, boreks, and pastillas in the cheap Indian, Turkish, and Moroccan restaurants around the square.
The irony of Europe’s fight against terrorism is that this poor, predominantly Muslim district in Brussels — the self-styled capital of the European Union, home to its major institutions and the headquarters of NATO — is rapidly emerging as one of the hotbeds of terrorist activity on the continent, due to an explosive mix of poverty, lawlessness, radicalization, and institutional buck-passing.
At least one of the attackers who killed more than 130 people in central Paris, Brahim Abdeslam, lived in Molenbeek. An international arrest warrant has been issued for Abdeslam’s brother Salah — who was stopped on the French border with Belgium Saturday but not detained. Belgian police arrested seven people in connection with the attacks over the weekend and raided several houses in Molenbeek Monday as the hunt for Salah Abdeslam continued (five of the arrested were later released). French investigators were also reportedly focusing on a Belgian of Moroccan descent, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, a Molenbeek native now believed to be in Syria, who is described as the possible mastermind behind the Paris attacks.
“Almost every single time there’s a link with Molenbeek,” Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel told Flemish channel VRT Sunday. “This is a gigantic problem.”
Ayoub el-Khazzani, a Moroccan national who attempted to gun down passengers on a high-speed train traveling between Amsterdam and Paris in August, spent time there. The weapons used by the Kouachi brothers in their attack on the office of satirical French magazine Charlie Hebdo in January were bought in the nearby Gare du Midi market. The two men killed by police in the eastern Belgian city of Verviers shortly after the Charlie Hebdo attacks were from Molenbeek. And Mehdi Nemmouche, a Frenchman of Algerian origin who killed four people at the Jewish Museum of Belgium in 2014, prepared his attacks in the district.
Everyone agrees Molenbeek has a major problem. Admitting authorities had “lost control” in the area, Belgian Interior Minister Jan Jambon pledged Saturday: “I’m going to clean up Molenbeek. We can’t accept this any longer — we have to look at how to tackle this problem, how to eradicate it once and for all.”
How did this area go from being Belgium’s “Little Manchester” — because of its once-strong industrial ties — to an “air base for jihadists,” in the words of George Dallemagne, a center-right lawmaker in the Belgian parliament?
The gradual gentrification of the canal area of Molenbeek disguises deep-seated social and economic problems in the bulk of this neighborhood of 95,000 people, say analysts. Brussels may be the third-richest region in the EU, according to 2013 Eurostat figures, but districts like Molenbeek are extremely poor, with high unemployment and dilapidated housing. “There are no factories, no jobs — except for those who speak both French and Dutch or have a university degree — and 60 percent of these young people with a Muslim background do not have a degree and do not speak Dutch,” said Bilal Benyaich, a senior fellow at the Itinera Institute in Brussels. “The social and ethnic segregation here is very big.”
Unemployment in Molenbeek stands at 30 percent overall, but is almost 40 percent for young people. According to the OECD, Belgium has the EU’s largest gap in employment rates between the native and foreign-born population, which reinforces the feeling among many locals of Moroccan, Tunisian, and Turkish origin that they are discriminated against. Highlighting the high unemployment rate and lack of opportunities for young people Sunday, Molenbeek Mayor Françoise Schepmans called her borough “a breeding ground for violence.”
Brice De Ruyver, who spent nearly a decade as a security advisor to former Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt, told the Independent that Molenbeek suffers from multiple problems. “Youths are poorly educated, attracted by petty crime, have run-ins with police, and then there is a vicious circle, which leads to recruitment by radical groups.”
Salafi groups have been active in Molenbeek and other largely immigrant communities in Brussels since Saudi Arabia started sending hard-line preachers to Belgium in the 1970s. “Brussels has a long history with radical Islamism, more than other European cities,” says Benyaich. “What London is for the Anglo-Saxon world, Brussels is for continental Europe.” Experts say indoctrination by radical preachers, along with slick online propaganda videos produced by the Islamic State and others, helps explain why so many Belgians have gone to fight in Syria.
According to figures from the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation in London, 440 of the 4,000 or so fighters who have gone to fight in Syria from Western European countries are from Belgium. Germany and the United Kingdom supply the largest overall number — somewhere between 500 and 600 — but relative to the size of the population Belgium tops the list with 40 fighters per million inhabitants.
The center-right government that took office in October 2014 has taken a series of measures aimed at stopping people heading to fight with the Islamic State and other jihadi groups, including revoking Belgian nationality and confiscating passports of those suspected of planning to fight in Syria. The measures appear to be working: According to Jambon, a prominent member of the Flemish nationalist party N-VA, a year ago 15 Belgians a month were heading to Syria, mainly from prosperous Flanders. Now the figure is around five a month — largely from Brussels. “Outside Brussels the problem is more or less under control. That is really an issue.”
But Brussels’s reputation as a home for radicals isn’t just about long-simmering inequalities and historical hard-line ties. Both politicians and experts say the way in which Brussels is governed makes it easier for terrorists to thrive in the Belgian capital. Speaking at an event organized by Politico three days before the Paris attacks, Jambon pointed to the fact that Brussels — a city of 1.2 million people — has 19 municipalities with 19 different mayors and six police departments. New York, a city of 9 million people, has one mayor and one police department. “So the approach is too divided between the different local authorities here in Brussels.”
The administration of the city is “dysfunctional,” Benyaich said. “Brussels is a black hole in Europe’s anti-radicalization policy. It is easier for people with bad intentions — be they criminal, mafia, or terrorist — to live life under the radar here than in any other major European city.” Brussels has an active underground economy, which makes it a haven for arms, drug, and people smugglers, he said. “It’s easy to find guns on the black market for a cheap price. And it’s easier to find a place to hide. You can blend into the crowd without being noticed.”
With police sirens wailing across the city Monday evening as the hunt for Salah Abdeslam continued, finding a place for terrorists and would-be attackers to hide in this charming but chaotic city is likely to become more difficult. But until authorities get a firmer grip on failed neighborhoods like Molenbeek, Brussels will remain a terrorist hub at the heart of Europe.
Photo credit: JAMES ARTHUR GEKIERE/AFP/Getty Images