Belgium’s Molenbeek trapped in vicious circle of extremism and repression

In the area of Brussels where several of the Paris attackers grew up, the often heavy-handed official response to radicalisation is helping to fuel division further, writes Colin Randall.

A police officer and soldiers on security duty inside Galerie de la Reine following the terror alert level being elevated to 4/4, in Brussels, Belgium, on November 22, 2015. Stephanie Lecocq/EPA
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BRUSSELS // From a distance, nothing sets Les Beguines apart from countless other bars in the Belgian capital of Brussels.

In the arched windows of the austere building on the corner of a quiet street, one poster features croissants and cappuccino while others depict Toto, a Belgian cartoon hero.

On closer inspection, the bar is locked and deserted. Official notices explaining why this is the case have been posted on the front door and one window by the mayor of Molenbeek, a poor, immigrant-dominated area only a few Metro stops from the handsome city centre.

Les Beguines, formerly owned by one of the Paris suicide bombers, Brahim Abdeslam, and managed by his brother Salah, was closed by official decree less than two weeks before the ISIL-claimed attacks on November 13. Police raids in August had revealed traces of hallucinatory drugs, partly smoked cannabis joints and other evidence of narcotics activity.

Running a bar that legally sells alcohol and also promotes illegal drug use seems wholly at odds with support for the terrorist group and its viciously enforced philosophy. Yet this was where the brothers could regularly be found even as they plotted mass murder.

Along with others, also Belgians of Moroccan origin considered suspects or still detained after the atrocities that killed 130 people in France, Salah – who has been on the run ever since the Paris attacks – and Brahim Abdeslam were no strangers to criminality.

Like so many terrorist recruits, the brothers had criminal records: Brahim for traffic in false identity papers and arms; Salah for an armed robbery that saw him jailed with the alleged ringleader of the Paris attacks, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, another product of Molenbeek.

“Not very successful drug dealers,” is how one person described Salah and a friend, Ahmet Dahmani, now held in Turkey on charges of helping to select locations to attack in the French capital.

“I went into Les Beguines while in the area a couple of months ago,” said a young Belgian woman who prefers not to be identified. “It was not like a normal cafe or bar. No one was interested in serving. There was no obvious activity in the kitchen. When the coffee came, it tasted terrible. The toilets were disgusting. I thought it must be a front for money laundering.”

If only that had been all the Abdeslams were up to. What investigators say they were doing in, plotting in Belgium before acting in Paris, was on a vastly different scale of evil.

Despair in Molenbeek

The terrible loss of life it caused has led to anger, fear and despair in Molenbeek, the area of Brussels where they and others implicated in the attacks grew up. This is a district struggling to shrug off its image as a “hotbed of extremism”, with residents expressing indignation at the walking tours that make them, in the words of one, “feel like apes in a zoo”.

But even if the strident comments of government ministers and the media-fuelled stereotypes are disregarded, the evidence is hard to ignore.

A Moroccan-Belgian journalist, Hind Fraihi, found while living under cover as a sociology student in Molenbeek that extremist attitudes are commonplace among the young.

“The frustration over their lack of future, their solidarity with war victims and an ambition to be heroic is all swirling in their heads,” she wrote as long ago as 2006 on the website. “They truly dream of their private hero tale. A few live with their head already in paradise. And yes, they truly believe in those virgins that wait there for them. It won’t surprise me if tomorrow a new suicide terrorist from Belgium will commit an attack in the Middle East.”

Fraihi was writing after Muriel Degauque, a Belgian woman who converted to Islam, blew herself up in a suicide attack on US forces in Iraq in November 2005. What has happened since, in Europe as well as conflict zones, vindicates her gloomy prognosis.

However, there are many ordinary Muslim residents of such districts who feel not the least connection to, or support for, terrorism. They see no obligation to apologise for acts committed, falsely, in the name of their faith. Yet they suffer a backlash as police raids disrupt daily life, discrimination grows and already strained community relations are damaged further.

Muslim backlash

In short, whether the Abdeslam brothers had the wit to appreciate it, their actions in Paris play directly into the hands of extremists presenting themselves less as callous butchers who tarnish the name of Islam, more as defenders of an oppressed people.

“They are always the first the first to suffer,” says Rachida Aziz, a Belgian-Moroccan activist who campaigns on behalf of the poor while also running a successful fashion design business.

“When these things happen, it allows the authorities to do what they always wanted to, but didn’t previously have an excuse for.”

Ms Aziz, 44, says thousands of Muslims are thinking of abandoning Belgium to move away from prejudice and hope for better lives elsewhere in the West or even back in Morocco.

There is similar disillusionment in other parts of Europe as political leaders grapple with problems caused by mass migration from the Middle East, Asia and Africa and parties of the broadly anti-Islam far right exploit public anxieties.

In France, the anti-immigration National Front made impressive gains in the first round of regional elections, arising in part from concerns about security and immigration. The party led by Marine Le Pen was routed in the second round but its continuing influence in France’s political direction is certain to be maintained.

Extremism in Belgium

Belgium is home to more than 11 million people. While the numbers are small, the per capita rate for those leaving to fight with ISIL and similar groups in Syria and Iraq – 440, or 40 per million of the 2015 population figures, according to London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence – is easily the highest for any European country.

Although French president Francois Hollande initially said the Paris attacks had been planned overseas, meaning Syria, and executed with help from within France, it quickly became clear that Belgium and in particular Molenbeek was the operational hub.

It is also common knowledge in Brussels that Kalashnikovs and other weapons favoured by terrorists as well as ordinary criminals can be bought from dealers in an area bordering Molenbeek and neighbouring Anderlecht.

Belgium’s prime minister Charles Michel undoubtedly caught the popular mood when he accepted after the Paris attacks that investigation of such events often led to Belgium. “I notice that each time there is a link with Molenbeek,” he said. “This is a gigantic problem. Apart from prevention, we should also focus more on repression.”

And in the vicious circle created by atrocities and an often heavy-handed official response, with dramatic raids on relatives and associates of suspects, the resentment described by Rachida Aziz deepens.

“They are suffering the impact of the sort of police violence that so alienates them,” she says. “If you think in terms of running from the police instead of towards them, that is a huge problem because the police are seen to represent the state.

Injustice and exclusion

Ms Aziz is convinced radicalisation feeds on the inequality and discrimination she sees at all levels of Belgian society. And she points to Dutch research suggesting more than 60 per cent of those radicalised have suffered psychological or psychiatric problems.

Whether terrorist candidates are deranged or depraved or both, most Brussels Muslims bitterly denounce the few who turn to violence, while also calling for action to tackle obstacles to social advancement, from glaring injustices in labour and housing to a widely felt sense of exclusion.

“We are a community,” says Hassan Al Hilou, at just 16 a forceful and articulate voice of Belgian youth who is an ambassador for the King Baudouin Foundation social enhancement charity and plans to launch an online platform, Youth Talks, next spring. “It’s not only an attack against the young Muslims in Belgium, it’s an attack against the whole world.

“Today it’s guys from Molenbeek, but tomorrow it can be guys from Sydney. Do we then forget Molenbeek and look to Sydney? We, the residents of Brussels are angry, not only the Muslims but we [are] all angry that those youth think about doing stuff like that.”

But not all young Muslims see themselves as part of a single community. A BBC report on radicalisation quoted the disturbing words of Anouar Abdellati, 24, a Moroccan-born Belgian who attends sessions in a prevention programme designed to protect young people from drifting towards radical ideologies. “I have a lot of friends thinking in a really bad way. They start to hate cops. They start to hate white people.”

Social initiatives

Bie Vancraeynest, 37, who runs a long-established youth project in the inner-city Brussels district of Chicago, insists hatred works much more powerfully in the opposite direction. “Institutional racism is a real problem and exists at all levels of society,” she says. “What we have been seeing are the consequences of years and years of intellectual and spiritual neglect of people.”

It is rarely easy to discern which of these embittered individuals will seek a violent escape from the deprivation of ghetto life. Dahmani, the alleged co-plotter in the Paris attacks now held in Turkey, was a promising fighter in the project’s successful boxing club until a drugs offence forced his exclusion from competition.

But Ms Vancraeynest, who studied Arabic and Islamic studies at university and spent a year in Damascus improving her linguistic skills, saw Dahmani taking a sparring session at the Brussels boxing club a few weeks before the Paris attacks. She insists he never cut an isolated, European-hating figure.

“[He was sparring] with a Belgian girl, wearing typically light sports kit and he had no problems with that, or the physical contact sparring involves,” she says. “The man who has been his trainer was so upset after his arrest that he wanted to give up. He hadn’t seen it coming. But how many people did his work stop becoming radicalised because it gave them a purpose in life and they will always remember how they were once helped?”

In difficult economic times, the Belgian government has cut the money it devotes to social initiatives.

In the conference room of Belgium’s coordination and crisis centre, where ministers and security chiefs met after the country became a clear focus of the post-Paris investigation, the agency’s communications chief, Benoit Ramacker, says the image of Belgium as a “weak link” in Europe’s fight against terrorism is unfair.

“Perhaps we have been too transparent about our problems,” he says. “But we have been working hard, for a long time, bringing together all the government departments and local authorities, on deradicalisation initiatives and this needs to be explained. Measures that are considered repressive are necessary in the current situation but we are also conscious of the need to address social issues.”

Losing hope

The Paris attacks, coming amid the challenge of coping with thousands of migrants arriving from the Middle East, Africa and the Indian subcontinent, have posed questions Europe cannot answer with a unified voice.

Hassan Al Hilou, whose family background is Iraqi, may only be 16, and the Youth Talks forum he plans may be months from launch, but Mr Ramacker’s government could usefully pay heed to his central theme.

“It’s easy,” Hassan says. “Young guys in Europe lose their hope, there isn’t work for them, the education system is from the old model, then there is discrimination with examples like headscarf ban in schools and work.

“That can be the biggest argument for Daesh to create hate in the youth, against this nation. ”

This leaves the West the massive challenge of finding ways to stop young men like the Abdeslam brothers – and the French-born Muslims involved in the attacks – from turning, apparently unknown to relatives, to a cause that requires them to kill and be killed.

On the evidence of Molenbeek, and comparable districts of Europe devoid of any sense of belonging, this is unlikely to be accomplished by security measures alone.