The Rear Base of Jihadi Terror: A Quiet Brussels Suburb

Belgium has even more people fighting in Syria and Iraq than France, but Brussels suffers the 'divide and don't rule' of six police forces and 19 mayors.

Police in the Brussels neighborhood Molenbeek seeking suspects after the Paris attacks, November 14, 2015.
AFP

Just a 15-minute walk from the famous Manneken Pis fountain in the city center, the view changes on the other side of a wide canal. Smoke rises from cafe hookahs, women are covered from head to toe with only their eyes showing, storefronts sport Arabic signs and the muezzin’s call wafts from mosques.

We’re in Molenbeek, one of the 19 municipalities of the Brussels-Capital Region, a suburb that has gained notoriety as the rear base of jihadi terror.

Security experts in Brussels weren’t surprised that the investigation into the Paris attacks had reached Molenbeek so soon. Many terror attacks in Belgium and France in recent rears originated here, including the fatal shooting by Mehdi Nemmouche at Brussels’ Jewish Museum in May 2014 and the foiled attack by Ayoub El-Khazzani on the high-speed train to Paris three months ago.

The terrorists trained here and received logistical assistance and weapons here. Kalashnikovs, ammunition and explosives make their way to Molenbeek with relative ease, usually with the cooperation of Bosnian Muslim extremists who are veterans of the Yugoslav wars.

When the group Sharia4Belgium, which sought to turn the country into a “Koran state” by force, was uncovered four years ago, it turned out many of its members were from Molenbeek. Some were prosecuted, a few were convicted and received long prison sentences, and most fled the country.

When in 2012 a neighborhood woman was arrested for violating the prohibition against wearing burkas in public, young men attacked the local police station.

It’s a high-density neighborhood, 95,000 residents in less than six square kilometers, with 30-percent unemployment. More than a quarter of the population is Muslim, as is the population of greater Brussels, home to 1.1 million people. Most are not assimilated into Belgian society.

There are 22 active mosques in Molenbeek, and it’s estimated that hundreds of young Muslims in the area have undergone religious radicalization in recent years. Many of them, Belgian citizens, have joined the Islamic State.

The Belgian Interior Ministry puts their number at around 270, about half as many as the Islamic State “volunteers” from France, a country with six times Belgian’s population. The French government estimates that around 600 French nationals are fighting in Syria and Iraq with the potential to carry out terror attacks after returning to France. For Belgium, the estimate tops 800.

Why? One reason is big cuts to law enforcement budgets, but the system of dividing power among the Flemish, the Walloons and the federal authorities lies at the core. Divide and don’t rule, if you will.

There’s a big difference with Paris. While the French capital has a single police force, greater Brussels has six — and 19 mayors. Belgian Foreign Minister Didier Reynders admitted to state television channel RTBF that this wasn’t the first time Molenbeek had been the focus of an Islamic-terror investigation. This time Belgium must take serious action, he said, and his grief was palpable.

But many Belgians know that serious action against Islamic extremism is no easy matter, in part because of Muslim voters’ role in maintaining the balance of political power, especially in Brussels. These considerations have had a damping effect.

Belgian Interior Minister Jan Jambon, a member of the New Flemish Alliance, hopes to change that. Tough, right-wing an anti-immigration, he became a member of the federal leadership only in October 2014.

Jambon spoke to Belgian commercial television station VTM on Saturday after the arrest in Molenbeek of at least three people suspected of being accessories to the Paris attacks. Jambon sounded as if he were planning an assault on the neighborhood.

It’s the only place Belgium has a problem, he said. Everywhere else in the country the security forces have significantly reduced the number people leaving to fight in Syria. He pledged to take charge of the neighborhood personally and go over the investigation files.

“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,” he said, adding that Molenbeek’s ties to terror reflected badly on the entire country.

Jambon, who recently proposed that refugees in Belgium wear ID badges, lamented that the state had to handle an immigration crisis as well as fight terror. He said Belgium couldn’t do both the same time.