How did the Brussels suburb become a hotbed of extremism?by Ismail Einashe / November 26, 2015 / Leave a comment
Not far from the heart of Europe’s governing institutions and their attendant bureaucrats, lies Molenbeek, a Brussels district 30 minutes from the city centre. Densely populated, composed of low-rise buildings, and home to a large Arab Muslim population, it is a neighbourhood where everyone knows everyone.
In the wake of the Paris attacks, international focus turned to the district. The alleged “mastermind” behind the attacks in Paris which left 130 dead, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, was from there. He grew up alongside the Abdeslam brothers, also suspected of involvement in the attacks, and in 2010 he was arrested in Belgium for armed robbery along with Salah Abdeslam, who remains on the run from police. According to a report in The New York Times Molenbeek’s Mayor, Françoise Schepmans, received a list with the names and addresses of more than 80 people suspected as Islamic militants living in her area a month before the Paris attacks. This list included the names of the two Abdesalam brothers and their childhood friend, Abaaoud.
Ayoub el-Khazzani, a Moroccan national, who opened fire on a Thalys train between Brussels and Paris, was also from Molenbeek. One of the Charlie Hebdo attackers Amedy Coulibaly, Malian-French, had brought arms from a dealer there, and the French-Algerian Mehdi Nemmouch, who killed four people at a Jewish museum in Brussels in 2014 lived in the district at one stage.
So what’s the connection? It’s complicated. Belgium, as a whole, has an integration problem. Muslim migrants began arriving in the 1960s, the majority from Turkey and Morocco; many were invited under a guest worker programme to work in heavy industries like mining and steel. In Molenbeek, most migrants came to build the Brussels metro, constructed in the 1960s and opened in 1976. The 1970s saw a shift. In 1974 a formal cap was introduced to limit economic migration. It meant family reunifications were the only easy entry route into Belgium. Men who had arrived to work alone were joined by their wives and children. By the 1980s, with the decline in heavy industry in Belgium and widespread closures of mines and factories, fortunes changed for Muslim migrants. According to Keltoum Belorf, a Moroccan-Belgian journalist and community editor at DeWereld Morgen, a Belgian-Dutch news website, a consequence was a shift in migration policy in the country. Now, only refugees from war-torn nations such as the Balkans were allowed to enter, and today things have become much harsher for refugees. “First generation (migrants) had a job; though they did not speak the language they had a means to integrate,” says Belorf.