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.
By the early 1990s, the situation in Belgium was dire and jobs were scarce. In May 1990 the Belgian Franc, which was linked to the Deutsche Mark, through closely tracking German rates, began to falter as German interest rates rose in 1990. This led to a sharp economic downturn in Belgium, and in 1992-3 the country experienced its worst recession since the Second World War. According to Dirk De Block, a Molenbeek councillor and the President of the Workers’ Party of Belgium (PTB) in the Brussels region, said that as “the mines started to close down because of de-industrialisation, we saw for the first time structural unemployment.” He says the Moroccans in Molenbeek suffered the most, adding “because of the economic crisis the Moroccans got stuck”, unlike previous migrant communities such as the Spanish and Italians, the Moroccans could not climb up the social ladder.
Most Belgians assumed the migrants would return home as work dried up, so a guest-worker mentality set in. But Belgians soon realised these migrants were here to stay, and their children were now fellow citizens. This collective realisation soured Belgian politics. De Block says now second and third generation Moroccan-Belgians suffer from high unemployment—50 per cent to 60 per cent of under 25s in Molenbeek are unemployed. Belorf says that after this realisation “the crisis worsened, that’s when the far right began to rise;” parties like the Vlaams Belang, a right-wing populist and Flemish nationalist party, ran on the increasing anti-immigrant sentiments, and benefited electorally in Brussels and in Flanders.
De Block says the economic changes in the 1980s created this phenomenon in Belgium, adding that the breakthrough of right-wing parties coincided with riots in poor cut-off municipalities such as Molenbeek in 1991. But De Block says Belgian authorities did not follow this with an integration agenda, in fact there were few explicit integration policies pursued following the riots. Instead, the problems of the 1990s were seen through a cultural prism. He says politicians began to blame social problems on the culture of Muslim migrants. “In the 1990s, social problems in Belgium were culturalised, this is one way I think that right-wing racist views penetrated more centrist parties.” He adds that “its not about culture, it’s a problem created in Molenbeek… we did not have issues with their grandparents (of young Moroccans in Molenbeek), who were more conservative than them.”
At this point, Molenbeek started to become a hotbed of Jihadis, because it is an attractive location between Germany and France, part of Schengen, which makes Belgium’s borders open and relatively easy to travel through. And, Belorf says, “It’s much easier to hide in Molenbeek than Flemish towns, and the secret service knew it.”
Molenbeek, which is home to about 100,000 people, has a large surplus of young Muslims who are cut-off, marginalised and poor; perfect targets for recruiters and jihadi ideology. Further, many mosques in Belgium, especially in Molenbeek, says Belorf, are under the sway of Saudi Wahhabi influence. De Block says “the Belgian state let big mosques in (Belgium) be subsidised by Saudi Arabia, they (Belgian government) gave the keys of Belgian Islam to the Wahhabis, this was stopped five years ago, but it was too late.” According to Belorf it’s very easy to find Saudi Islamic books in mosques and madrasas, “Moroccans don’t have ties with home, so the Saudi message… is empowering,” she said. The growth in preachers and recruiters in Molenbeek was allowed to continue unchecked by authorities.
But, there was also a battle for Islam in Molenbeek. De Block says he’s seen the changes in Molenbeek firsthand, having lived there since 1997. He says, “we have lost the ideological battle”, the traditional Islam of the parents’ generation rooted in culture has been replaced by a Wahhabi influenced Islam, which is less tolerant and more judgmental—“an Islam that says this is not our democracy, don’t vote, this society and politicians do not have good intentions for you”. Young people in Molenbeek did not go to local mosques for answers, because he says, “most mosques were in the hands of the older generations, and most young people could not speak Arabic properly, so they went looking for answers—and the Internet is one of the places where youth get answers, bad answers though.” Mainstream politicians, says De Block, did not engage in the fight against the growth of Islamist ideology “they did not know about the threat; there was underestimation of the impact of their ideology.”
Belgium, though a small country, has a complex bi-lingual federal makeup with numerous layers of governments. From 2010-11 Belgium had a political crisis that stopped the formation of a new government for 589 days because the opposing Flemish and Walloons were unable to agree on policy issues to form a new government. Divisions in Belgian society are deep, between a rich Flemish speaking north, which makes up 60 per cent of Belgium’s 11 million-strong population, and a less prosperous French speaking Wallonia in the south. It has eight parliaments; in Brussels there are 19 municipalities with 19 different mayors and six separate police departments. And it has a relatively weak security apparatus. Through this web of complexity, it’s easy to see why Belgium authorities lost the plot.
Plus, many police are ill-equipped to deal with the diverse environment in which they find themselves. “A lot of the police come from the Flemish background or Wallonia, They don’t know the reality of being a young Moroccan-Belgian in Molenbeek,” says Sihame, a 26-year-old comedian and youth worker born to Moroccan parents in Molenbeek. De Block says race plays a part, “as a society I think we underestimated the battle against exclusion, against discrimination, Belgium has one of the most discriminating attitudes in its labour market in Europe.”
Belorf adds that many in the community had warned Brussels police about the threat of radicalisation, yet they did not act. Simon Palombi, a consultant in international security at Chatham House, says he’s not surprised police did not act, because, he says “its only in the last couple of years that police and security services in the EU have began to intervene in terms of radicalisation.” And he cautions that information gathering is resource intensive—police cannot follow every radical or plot. But, what now? After Paris, Palombi says “Europe needs to re-assess its security position as a bloc,” rather than act based on national self-interest. EU states must pool their resources together into an organisation that can fight this Europe-wide threat.
Nowadays, the lure of radical Islam is strong for young residents. For young Muslim men in Molenbeek, getting a job is tough, and fitting into society even harder. Belorf says “[the] best thing is to work in the informal economy, so they get into drugs—selling cocaine.” Most feel marginalised and cut off—unlike British Jihadis, most young Belgian radicals are poor and uneducated. As a whole, unemployment is at 30 per cent in Molenbeek, far higher than the Belgian average of 8.5 per cent. Over the weekend Belgian interior minister Jan Jambon used strong rhetoric, saying he wanted to “clean up” the district, having admitted on Saturday that “we don’t have control of the situation in Molenbeek.”
Belgian authorities subsequently announced a raft of draconian security proposals. Belgians found to have traveled to Syria would be imprisoned on return. Anyone deemed to be a threat by security services because of their radicalisation would be forced to wear an electronic tagging bracelet. In terrorist cases detention will be extended from 24 hours to 72, plus rail and airline passengers will now have to register their details prior to departure. Some 520 soldiers will be deployed on Belgian soil and the government has announced an extra €400m for the security services. But, for residents of Molenbeek this is just what they fear—oppression. Belorf says, “the best reaction would be to invest, oppression is very necessary for the criminals but you must invest [in education, jobs and support for Molenbeek’s young people]—it’s a very young population.”
For many residents, Molenbeek has been unfairly labeled a “terrorist haven;” Belorf says, “the people are fed up by media calling them the Molenbeek terrorist.” They are keen to escape Molenbeek becoming shorthand for terror in Europe. After the attacks residents held a mass memorial on Molenbeek square. Sihame says “thousands” attended, saying that “we are the 99 per cent of Molenbeek residents who are united against terrorism” adding that “we want to show our solidarity not just with Paris, but with every victim of terrorism.” As for the Belgian authorities this must be a watershed moment, their shortcomings are increasingly under tight scrutiny.
Molenbeek’s image as a terror hotbed in Europe has been cemented. But for residents like Sihame, the reputation of her home “has been shattered.” Molenbeek has been promised repression by the Belgian government; such talk will only fan the flames of mistrust. A security response without an integration approach will not deter more of Molenbeek’s young from dying for jihad—Belgian authorities need an integration strategy that ends the cycle of unemployment, and engages young people away from radicalisation.