domingo, 15 de novembro de 2015
The Belgian radicals’ den
The Belgian radicals’ den
Paris investigation leads to run-down Brussels neighborhood notorious for jihadi recruitment.
By HANS VON DER BURCHARD and LAURENS CERULUS 11/16/15, 1:35 AM CET
“We don’t have a grip on the situation in Molenbeek.”
A confession — a mea culpa almost — summed up the Belgian government’s reaction to the links discovered between the terrorist strikes in Paris and this working class, immigrant neighborhood of Brussels.
Speaking to public broadcaster VRT Sunday, Interior Minister Jan Jambon said that the authorities had lost control over this area of the EU capital, which culprits in several recent terrorist attacks in Europe, including Friday’s carnage in Paris, have called home.
As the people of Paris united in grief and anxiety, the focus of the investigation into the coordinated shootouts and bombings at several locations in the French capital shifted northward over the weekend to Brussels.
Officials said the Paris plot increasingly looked like it was hatched in the Belgian capital. “It’s likely we’re dealing with a network,” said Françoise Schepmans, the mayor of the Molenbeek-Saint-Jean commune, or district.
The possible presence of a terrorist den, barely a couple kilometers from the city’s European quarter, has added sharp urgency to oft-voiced concerns about radicalization within Belgium’s Muslim community and the government’s track record on counterterrorism.
The Belgian federal prosecutor said two of the men behind Friday’s attack lived in Brussels. On Saturday afternoon, acting on evidence gathered at the scene in Paris, Belgian police raided two houses in Molenbeek and took seven people into custody.
“I notice that each time there is a link with Molenbeek. This is a gigantic problem.” — Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel.
For Molenbeek, the notoriety is nothing new. Ayoub El Khazzani, a young Moroccan who spent time in Syria and whose August attempt to attack passengers on a high-speed train from Brussels to Paris was thwarted by other passengers, stayed with his sister in Molenbeek. The neighborhood was linked to a terrorist cell broken up in January in Verviers, a depressed city in southern Belgium, as well as the radical network called Sharia4Belgium.
“I notice that each time there is a link with Molenbeek,” Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel said on Sunday. “This is a gigantic problem.”
In the raids on Saturday, the police also seized a gray VW Golf with the license number sought by French police after the attack in Paris. The car had crossed the French-Belgian border on Saturday morning with three men inside, including Salah Abdeslam, whose brother was one of the terrorists killed in the attacks, according to French police. The failure to arrest Abdeslam, whom police consider to be “directly involved” in the attacks, prompted French and Belgian authorities to issue an international warrant for his arrest.
“I noticed the car around ten in the morning, because it was parking in a no-stopping zone,” said Marc, a pensioner who lives 50 meters away from where the car was stopped. “When all the police came and I realized to whom it belonged, I got really anxious. I thought it could be a car bomb.”
One of the terrorist suspects lived in an apartment close to the marketplace. “This is bad news for our community, because we get stigmatized now,” said Ahmed El Khannouss, a local politician. “But radicalism is nothing we want to see here. There are no hate prayers in our mosque.”
Only a small canal divides the touristy old town of Brussels from Molenbeek, but crossing the bridge feels like stepping into a different city.
The district grew up during the industrial revolution, and then fell with it in the Great Depression, and never recovered. Many houses are run-down. Poverty is rampant. Molenbeek has the highest unemployment rate of any region in Belgium, at 30 percent.
“In this environment, where young Muslims have little to be optimistic about, radical messages offer strength and heroism.”
In recent decades, mostly Arabic immigrants settled down here, attracted by low rents in “Little Manchester,” the nickname for this ramshackle neighborhood.
“I came here 50 years ago,” said Mohamed, a shop owner, who like many locals did not want to be identified by his full name. “There has always been some criminality, okay, but it was good to live here. A few years ago, things have changed. These radicals came. They are not even true Muslims.”
The Muslim youths who have been radicalized — over 400 Belgians have joined extremist militias in Syria and Iraq, by some accounts the highest population among EU countries in per capita terms — tend to be third or fourth generation immigrants, according to Jambon, the Belgian interior minister and deputy prime minister.
“In this environment, where young Muslims have little to be optimistic about, radical messages offer strength and heroism,” said Magnus Ranstorp, a terrorism expert working for the EU Radicalization Awareness Network. “Particularly the Islamic State is good at this. Their videos are professional, they stir emotions. And they recruit young people to become the spearhead of the movement.”
Islamist militants recruit through online propaganda and rely on influential local figures, Ranstorp added. Molenbeek is a hotbed of recruiters for the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL.
Khalid Zerkani, a preacher nicknamed ‘Santa Claus,’ encouraged youngsters to leave for Syria and even paid them financial compensation. He was convicted in July to 12 years in prison for recruitment of foreign fighters.
“Young Muslims in our neighborhoods are radicalized by imams that come from abroad. Unfortunately, the local and regional political authorities did not respond to our requests to intervene in our community,” said Redouane Ahrouch, a representative of the Islam party in Anderlecht, which neighbors Molenbeek.
Of a handful of mosques in Molenbeek, at least two have been known to be popular among radicals, said Ahrouch. Imams feed off youngsters’ poor Arabic, translating holy scripture in a more radical and hate-inciting way, he said.
“The presence of recruiters has been going on for years,” said Montasser AlDe’emeh, a Molenbeek native who researches the radicalization in his neighborhood.
The recruiters preach the message that their Muslim community is oppressed and threatened by Western powers and civilization, he said. “The youngsters here know each other very well, they grow up together and pull each other in when one gets interested in going to Syria,” AlDe’emeh added.
The mosques and the homes of the imams are the nodes in a cross-border network of Islamic extremists, analysts and police say.
“The radicalized youngsters — you don’t see those on the streets that often. They’re more secluded, afraid of being caught, too,” said AlDe’emeh.
For extremists, Belgium is also a good place to get weapons. The terrorists who attacked the Charlie Hebdo satirical magazine and a Jewish supermarket in Paris last January purchased their automatic rifles in Belgium.
“Belgium is known as an international hub for illegal arms trade,” said Nils Duquet of the Flemish Peace Institute, which maps and monitors arms trade for the Flemish Parliament, adding that Brussels is one of the main markets for illegal guns.
Jihadi radicals have set up connections with the criminal gangs in Belgium, often following time spent together in prison, Duquet said. “Through these networks they can buy guns and rifles. And recent attacks have shown that terrorists are using guns and rifles more often, instead of the traditional explosives.”
Giulia Paravicini contributed to this article.