Europe's Most-vilified Suburb Asks Itself How It Became 'A Jihadi Base'

Security forces are operating nonstop in Molenbeek, a Brussels suburb and the home of three terrorists apparently involved in the weekend attacks. Meanwhile, Belgian officials play blame game.

Shlomo Papirblat
Shlomo Papirblat
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Belgian police conducting searches on Monday for possible terror suspects in the Molenbeek district of Brussels, where there is a huge Islamic population.
Belgian police conducting searches for possible terror suspects in Brussels' Molenbeek district, where the Abdeslam brothers grew up.Credit: Reuters
Shlomo Papirblat
Shlomo Papirblat

Within a few days Molenbeek, a Brussels suburb where the population is in some neighborhoods 80-percent Muslim, has become one of the most maligned places in Europe. Local security forces have been working nonstop since the mass terror attacks in Paris on Friday in a locale that has been dubbed “a jihadi base.” The same is true of the media, which want to learn more about the three local residents, the Abdeslam brothers, who apparently took part in planning and carrying out the attacks, and reportedly were “a few days earlier, walking around the neighborhood as though it was business as usual” At the same time, Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel declared Sunday that his government intends to act to regain control of Molenbeek.

Apparently in the first stage there is a plan to transfer authority for handling the locale to the Belgian national police chief, Catherine De Bolle.

For his part, Michel declared, with respect to terror activity, “I have become aware that there’s almost always a connection to Molenbeek." His Interior Minister Jan Jambon added that, “the situation in Molenbeek has spiraled out of control. We must invest efforts there in order to restore control over what is going on.”

Meanwhile, in Belgium – which awoke Sunday to headlines to the effect that the country is “the home-front base of extremist Islam in Europe” – debate and mutual accusations were heard among politicians.

Molenbeek Mayor Francoise Schepmans, a member of the prime minister’s Liberal Party, claimed in an interview to the local La Libre newspaper that the Jihadis “don’t all come from here, a large percentage are only in transit It’s easy for them to hide. In some districts, the population is very dense, with 80 percent of the people from North African origin. Anonymity is easier for people passing through with very bad intentions.”

Schepmans, who took office in 2012, went on to point an accusing finger at her predecessor: “Immigrants arrived here, where the ground was ripe for processes of religious extremism, because there was no policy for receiving them or integrating them into community life. One should have been firmer from the start," she added, with respect to the newcomers' obligations to the society in which they came to live.

The mayor's predecessor, Philippe Moreaux, a history professor and member of the Socialist Party, served in that capacity for about 20 years.

One member of the city council said Sunday that “since the end of the period of the major immigration in the 1970s, and until the beginning of the second millennium, the population from North Africa grew fourfold as a result of the law enabling family reunification. The mayor saw it as an opportunity to conduct ‘a social-multicultural laboratory experiment’ and failed in a big way.’”

It should be noted that Belgium's Socialist Party relies largely on the votes of Muslim residents, and therefore its leaders’ approach to the issue is very complex.

On Monday, Moreaux responded forcefully to the accusations made against him, in the daily Le Soir: “1. I haven’t been the mayor of Molenbeek for the past three years. 2. The things happening now in Molenbeek never took place when I was mayor. 3. The terrible deterioration took place after I left. The aforesaid population withdrew into itself and the police became paralyzed, as did the welfare services. 4. The attacks in Paris are a result of the failure of the French and Belgian intelligence services.”

Moreaux also had something else to say about the fact that the Islamic State is apparently succeeding in recruiting a large number of volunteers from among the young people of his district: “That has no connection to what is happening in Molenbeek. It’s part of a far broader problem that stems from the situation in the Middle East.”

Most of the attention in this city is now focused, however, on the three Abdeslam brothers, who grew up in the suburb and set out from there to carry out or to assist in perpetrating the attacks in Paris that have cost the lives of over 130 people. Salah, the youngest, whose picture has been displayed in almost all the newspapers published on the Continent and beyond – was reportedly arrested midday on Monday. His brother Ibrahim blew himself up in the course of the attack at a café in Paris. The third brother, Mohammed, was arrested on Saturday in Molenbeek, after his return from Paris during the night, but was apparently released. All three have French citizenship but were born in Belgium and grew up in Molenbeek.

Ibrahim, 31, was known to the local police as a drug dealer and a thief, sometimes perpetrating crimes with the help of Salah, 26. He has been on trial several times in Brussels courts since 2000, but was never imprisoned. Ibrahim and Salah lived together in an apartment in a building overlooking the city square; for his part, Mohammed worked for years for the Molenbeek municipality.

Neighbors who knew the brothers well told the newspaper D.H. on Sunday, “We knew that Ibrahim was a religious extremist, but nobody thought that his two brothers were following in his footsteps. Everyone saw them walking around the neighborhood several days before the attacks in Paris as though it was business as usual.”

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