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Can This Brussels Neighborhood Shake Its Jihadi Reputation?

Molenbeek was labeled a hub of European extremism. Seven years later, with drug trafficking rising, alienated residents want to change the narrative.

Vohra-Anchal-foreign-policy-columnist18
Vohra-Anchal-foreign-policy-columnist18
Anchal Vohra
By , a Brussels-based columnist for Foreign Policy who writes about Europe, the Middle East and South Asia.
Two women are seen from the back, walking down a street in a crowd.
Two women are seen from the back, walking down a street in a crowd.
Two women walk down a pedestrian shopping street in the center of Brussels’s Molenbeek neighborhood on June 22. Noe Zimmer/Belga Mag/AFP via Getty Images

BRUSSELS—On July 10, Nihad Bellaali and Aslan Bahadir were catching up near a bus stop in Brussels’s Molenbeek neighborhood a few steps away from 79 Rue des Quatre-Vents. More than six years earlier, that address was the site of a major police operation, when Salah Abdeslam, the only surviving member of the Islamic State cell that carried out the 2015 Paris terrorist attacks, was dragged out of the building after a monthslong manhunt.

On June 29, a Paris court sentenced the 32-year-old Abdeslam to life in prison for his role in the attacks, in which a group of 20 men—at least seven from Molenbeek—coordinated bombings and shootings that killed 130 people and injured more than 400 others in and around the French capital. Abdeslam, a French citizen of Moroccan descent who grew up in Molenbeek, said he merely drove the killers, including his brother, and that he “renounced” his mission to detonate an explosive suicide vest “out of humanity.” In his trial, he apologized to the victims and appealed to them to hate him “with moderation.” But French courts did not have mercy for the man who aided terrorists and then went to McDonald’s after dropping off suicide bombers at the Bataclan theater.

“The verdict was fair,” Bellaali said. A Moroccan Belgian who works as a customer service representative at a bank, Bellaali lives with her family a few houses down from Abdeslam’s former hideout. She had no idea, she said, that Abdeslam had been holed up so close to her.

BRUSSELS—On July 10, Nihad Bellaali and Aslan Bahadir were catching up near a bus stop in Brussels’s Molenbeek neighborhood a few steps away from 79 Rue des Quatre-Vents. More than six years earlier, that address was the site of a major police operation, when Salah Abdeslam, the only surviving member of the Islamic State cell that carried out the 2015 Paris terrorist attacks, was dragged out of the building after a monthslong manhunt.

On June 29, a Paris court sentenced the 32-year-old Abdeslam to life in prison for his role in the attacks, in which a group of 20 men—at least seven from Molenbeek—coordinated bombings and shootings that killed 130 people and injured more than 400 others in and around the French capital. Abdeslam, a French citizen of Moroccan descent who grew up in Molenbeek, said he merely drove the killers, including his brother, and that he “renounced” his mission to detonate an explosive suicide vest “out of humanity.” In his trial, he apologized to the victims and appealed to them to hate him “with moderation.” But French courts did not have mercy for the man who aided terrorists and then went to McDonald’s after dropping off suicide bombers at the Bataclan theater.

“The verdict was fair,” Bellaali said. A Moroccan Belgian who works as a customer service representative at a bank, Bellaali lives with her family a few houses down from Abdeslam’s former hideout. She had no idea, she said, that Abdeslam had been holed up so close to her.

The whole neighborhood, Bellaali and Bahadir said, was scarred by the actions of Abdeslam and the other attackers from Molenbeek. Since 2015, media reports have labeled Molenbeek the hub of European jihadism—a reputation it has not been able to shake. Residents of the neighborhood feel increasingly stigmatized and fear they have all become suspected terrorists in the eyes of police and other Belgians since the Paris attacks. Meanwhile, as drug-related crime in Molenbeek rises, some experts fear that even as the global conditions for Islamist radicalization may have waned, the deeper root causes—the community-level alienation that pushed some of Molenbeek’s young men to extremism in the past—have not.

Molenbeek is a distinctly immigrant neighborhood. Its market is full of shops selling veils, long gowns, and hijabs, as well as a number of restaurants offering Middle Eastern delicacies. The majority of its residents are Muslims of Moroccan origin, though immigrant populations from Africa and Eastern Europe are growing there as well. Those who have felt stigmatized elsewhere in the country, at times simply for what they wear, say they feel freer to embrace their identities here.

“I get that look more often now—that look they give when they see me in a hijab.”

At Brunchy, a cafe on Rue Delaunoy, 20-year-old Samia Bely was crushing ice and mangoes in a blender. All of the customers at the trendy cafe were people of color, and most had ordered Mediterranean breakfast dishes like labneh, a popular yogurt in the Middle East, or shakshuka, eggs poached in tomato sauce.

Bely, who was wearing light makeup and a hijab, said the city had become more hostile to her since the Paris attacks and Abdeslam’s arrest. “I get that look more often now—that look they give when they see me in a hijab,” she said on July 10. “It is unnerving.”

Although residents have experienced increased hostility since 2015, the neighborhood has been the site of occasional police raids because of its connections with extremist attacks since it sheltered the terrorists who assassinated Ahmad Shah Massoud, the famous Afghan mujahideen commander who opposed the Taliban, in 2001. The government has also conducted several anti-terrorism operations in Molenbeek, including to look for a suspect in the Jewish Museum attack in Brussels in 2014 and in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks in 2015.

Although it is difficult to pinpoint what causes individuals to become radicalized, Johan Leman, an anthropologist and the president of Foyer, a community center in Molenbeek, believes a combination of local and global factors contributed to Molenbeek becoming a fertile ground for terrorist groups, including the Islamic State. On the local level, the neighborhood has long faced high unemployment, high rates of poverty, and fewer educational opportunities. The U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as the initial successes of the Islamic State on the battlefield, also could have contributed to the group’s appeal.

But while Washington has pivoted away from the Middle East, withdrawing from Afghanistan and reducing its troop presence in Iraq, and the Islamic State’s popularity has waned amid its territorial defeats, local factors in Molenbeek remain that extremist groups could now exploit. In particular, unemployment in Molenbeek is 21 percent, three times the national average. Economic despair has coincided with crime increasing in the neighborhood, especially in drug trafficking over the past couple years. “For more than 40 years, [Molenbeek] was a drug trafficking line from Morocco to the Netherlands, but drug trafficking has exploded recently mainly because the pandemic reduced earnings,” Leman said. “It has become a business model for many families.”

On the afternoon of June 20, a gang war broke out at the intersection of Rue des Quatre-Vents, a few hundred yards from Abdeslam’s former hideout. It was the 13th shooting in Molenbeek since last September. (Brussels has witnessed 22 shootings this year, according to Belgian media reports.) Many of the shootings are gang and drug related. Catherine Moureaux, Molenbeek’s mayor, told local press, “We’ve now seen a period before COVID-19 and after. Since then, conflicts have grown more heated; there is more money and more weapons circulating, and we are dealing with more organized gangs.”

Although no recent jihadi activity has been reported, some observers worry that possible Islamist sleeper cells could exploit a mix of racial discrimination and the increase in drug trafficking to recruit jihadis.

“ISIS recruited members through drug dealers in the neighborhood” in the past, Leman said. “[Khalid] Zerkani, the main recruiter, went to bars selling drugs and converted dealers that became his recruits … including [at] the bar run by the Abdeslam brothers.” Zerkani, a Moroccan-born Belgian national, was a radical preacher who recruited young men for terrorist groups in underground mosques in Molenbeek. He was connected to Abdelhamid Abaaoud, who was friends with the Abdeslam brothers and masterminded the Paris attacks. Abaaoud was a regular at Les Beguines, the bar run by the Abdeslam brothers, which was shuttered for selling drugs a week before the Paris attacks. In November 2015, Françoise Schepmans, then-mayor of Molenbeek, said, “There was a group of drug traffickers active in the cafe. From such delinquency, it’s only a small step toward radicalization.”

Bahadir, a 27-year-old man of Turkish descent who lives in the nearby neighborhood of Anderlecht, also noted the potential ties between drug trafficking and radicalization. “It is all connected,” Bahadir said. “A 10-year-old Syrian boy sells drugs near my home every day. He is controlled by an older dealer and is clearly exploited.”

A few months after the Paris attacks, the Belgian government invested 39 million euros ($43 million) in several Brussels municipalities, including Molenbeek, to develop the local economy, build community centers, and strengthen the police force. But, Leman said, the efforts have been wanting. After the recent shootings, Belgian Interior Minister Annelies Verlinden met Moureaux and agreed to deploy 20 more police to the district. Verlinden has suggested collaborating across police divisions in the city to better combat crime.

Although some residents, like Bellaali and Bahadir, welcome more police, they also say the relationship between law enforcement and residents is fraught. “One time, our neighbors threw stones at the police when they visited,” Bahadir said. “The local boys don’t like it when police come in because they feel targeted,” Bellaali added.

Twitter: @anchalvohra

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