Guns, God, griev­ances in Is­lamist ‘air­base’

Kuwait Times - - ANALYSIS - By Robert-Jan Bartunek and Alas­tair Macdonald

“Abreed­ing ground for violence” the mayor of Molen­beek called her bor­ough on Sun­day, speak­ing of un­em­ploy­ment and over­crowd­ing among Arab im­mi­grant fam­i­lies, of youth­ful de­spair find­ing refuge in rad­i­cal­ism. But as the Brussels dis­trict on the wrong side of the city’s post-in­dus­trial canal be­comes a fo­cus for po­lice pur­su­ing those be­hind Fri­day’s mass at­tacks in Paris, Bel­gian au­thor­i­ties are ask­ing what makes the nar­row, ter­raced streets of Molen­beek dif­fer­ent from a thou­sand sim­i­lar neigh­bour­hoods across Europe.

Three themes emerge as Molen­beek is again in a spot­light of Is­lamist violence, home not just to mil­i­tants among Bel­gium’s own half a mil­lion Mus­lims but, it seems, for French rad­i­cals seek­ing a con­ve­nient, discreet base to lie low, plan and arm be­fore strik­ing their home­land across the border. Se­cu­rity ser­vices face dif­fi­cul­ties due to Bel­gium’s lo­cal de­vo­lu­tion and ten­sions be­tween the coun­try’s Fren­c­hand Dutch-speak­ing halves; the coun­try has long been open to fun­da­men­tal­ist preach­ers from the Gulf; and it has a thriv­ing black mar­ket in au­to­matic ri­fles of the kind used in Paris.

“With 500-1,000 eu­ros (dol­lars) you can get a mil­i­tary weapon in half an hour,” said Bi­lal Benyaich, se­nior fel­low at Brussels think-tank the Itin­era In­sti­tute, who has stud­ied the spread of rad­i­cal Is­lam in Bel­gium. “That makes Brussels more like a big US city” in mostly gun-free Europe, he said. Two of the at­tack­ers who killed over 130 peo­ple, 270 km away in Paris on Fri­day night were French­men res­i­dent in Bel­gium. Bel­gian po­lice raided Molen­beek ad­dresses and seven peo­ple have been ar­rested in Bel­gium over the Paris at­tacks.

“Al­most ev­ery time, there is a link to Molen­beek,” said 39-year-old cen­trist prime min­is­ter Charles Michel, whose year-old coali­tion is bat­tling rad­i­cal re­cruiters who have tempted more than 350 Bel­gians to fight in Syria - rel­a­tive to Bel­gium’s 11 mil­lion pop­u­la­tion, eas­ily the big­gest con­tin­gent from Europe. But “pre­ven­tive mea­sures” of the past few months were not enough, Michel said, de­scrib­ing Molen­beek as a “gi­gan­tic prob­lem” and say­ing: “There has to be more of a crack­down.”

His in­te­rior min­is­ter, Jan Jam­bon, vowed to “cleanse” the dis­trict per­son­ally. Con­ser­va­tives blamed lax over­sight on left-wing pre­de­ces­sors, na­tion­ally and in Molen­beek town hall, and duelled over whether Dutch-speak­ing Flan­ders or mainly French-speak­ing Brussels and the south did more to curb the rad­i­cals. Such dif­fer­ences, which have trans­lated into a pro­fu­sion of lay­ers of gov­ern­ment and polic­ing in an ef­fort to ap­pease cen­trifu­gal forces that long threat­ened to break Bel­gium apart, have cre­ated prob­lems for in­tel­li­gence and se­cu­rity ser­vices. Jam­bon has com­plained him­self of a pro­fu­sion of po­lice forces across state and lan­guage lines, in­clud­ing six in Brussels alone, a city of just 1.8 mil­lion.

Po­lice Lack‘Grip’

“Bel­gium is a fed­eral state and that’s al­ways an ad­van­tage for ter­ror­ists,” said Ed­win Bakker, pro­fes­sor at the Cen­tre for Ter­ror­ism and Coun­tert­er­ror­ism at the Univer­sity of Lei­den in the Nether­lands. “Hav­ing sev­eral lay­ers of gov­ern­ment ham­pers the flow of in­for­ma­tion be­tween in­ves­ti­ga­tors.” Con­trast­ing Bel­gium with its cen­tralised Dutch neigh­bour, he added: “It’s much more dif­fi­cult for groups to dis­ap­pear from the radar just by mov­ing 10 kilo­me­tres.”

Given the dif­fi­culty of gath­er­ing in­tel­li­gence in places like Molen­beek, a bor­ough of 90,000 where some neigh­bour­hoods were up to 80 per­cent Mus­lim, any gaps in the in­for­ma­tion chain were prob­lem­atic, Bakker said: “In parts of Brussels there are ar­eas on which the po­lice have lit­tle grip, very seg­re­gated ar­eas that don’t feel they’re a part of the Bel­gian state.

“In such a case it’s very dif­fi­cult to get feed­back from the com­mu­nity. That means while the neigh­bours may have seen some­thing go­ing on, they’re not pass­ing it to the po­lice. Then it be­comes very tough for in­tel­li­gence agen­cies as only re­ly­ing on them and not lo­cal po­lice is not suf­fi­cient.”

Po­lit­i­cal com­pli­ca­tion is also blamed for slow­ing the pass­ing of new laws, for ex­am­ple to rein in the preach­ing of hate in mosques or re­cruit­ment for and travel to the Syr­ian war. While some of Molen­beek’s old fac­to­ries - it once en­joyed the in­dus­tri­ous nick­name “Pe­tit Manch­ester” - have made it a smart ad­dress for bo­hemian loft liv­ing, ar­eas tum­bling out from the ship canal, offering ha­lal butch­ers, street stalls and back­street mosques are some of the poor­est in north­west Europe.

The 25 per­cent job­less rate, ris­ing to 37 per­cent among the young, is sig­nif­i­cantly higher than other parts of Brussels, also home to a thriv­ing, cos­mopoli­tan mid­dle class drawn by the Euro­pean Union in­sti­tu­tions on the other side of the city. Bel­gian of­fi­cials are also in­creas­ingly con­cerned about the in­flu­ence of rad­i­cal ver­sions of Is­lam. They re­main a mi­nor­ity taste; the Mus­lim Ex­ec­u­tive of Bel­gium, an um­brella group, spoke of its sup­port for demo­cratic val­ues and con­demned “bar­barism”. Molen­beek, which no­tably in 2012 saw street protests against en­force­ment of Bel­gian law on Mus­lim face veils, has, how­ever, been among ar­eas where fun­da­men­tal­ist preach­ers have flour­ished.

Fun­da­men­tal­ist Pedi­gree

Ge­orge Dalle­magne, a cen­tre-right op­po­si­tion mem­ber of the fed­eral par­lia­ment, traces some prob­lems back to the 1970s when re­source-poor, heav­ily in­dus­trial Bel­gium sought favour with Saudi Ara­bia by pro­vid­ing mosques for Gulf-trained preach­ers. Th­ese brought with them fun­da­men­tal­ist teach­ings then alien to most of Bel­gium’s Moroc­can im­mi­grants. Point­ing at Molen­beek, Dalle­magne said: “The very strong in­flu­ence of Salafists ... is one of the par­tic­u­lar­i­ties that puts Bel­gium at the cen­tre of ter­ror­ism in Europe to­day.”

Molen­beek is not unique in Bel­gium. The high­est pro­file rad­i­cal group taken on by the state has been shari­a4bel­gium, a so­cial me­dia savvy or­gan­i­sa­tion whose leader and dozens of mem­bers were con­victed early this year in the Flem­ish city of An­twerp of re­cruit­ing dozens to fight in Syria. But, as Prime Min­is­ter Michel said, a Molen­beek con­nec­tion keeps com­ing up in cases of Is­lamist at­tacks in Europe go­ing back at least to the 2004 train bomb­ings in Madrid, where one of those jailed for plan­ning them was a Moroc­can from the bor­ough.

Over lit­tle more than a year, it has fig­ured re­peat­edly. In Au­gust 2014, a French­man of Al­ge­rian ori­gin was liv­ing there when he gunned down four peo­ple at Brussels’ Jewish Mu­seum. In Jan­uary, when Bel­gian po­lice killed two men in the east­ern town of Verviers, foil­ing what they said was a plot to kid­nap and be­head a po­lice­man on cam­era, many leads led back to Molen­beek. French po­lice in­ves­ti­gat­ing af­ter the shoot­ings in Jan­uary at Paris mag­a­zine Char­lie Hebdo and a kosher gro­cery sus­pect one of the killers ac­quired guns via Molen­beek. So too, pros­e­cu­tors say, did the Span­ish-based Moroc­can over­pow­ered on a Brussels to Paris train in Au­gust. He had an AK-47 and nearly 300 bul­lets.

‘Air­base for Ji­hadists’

“Molen­beek is a pit­stop for rad­i­cals and crim­i­nals of all sorts,” said Benyaich, of the Itin­era In­sti­tute. “It’s a place where you can dis­ap­pear.” Dalle­magne added: “Ter­ror­ists are rad­i­calised in France, go to Syria to fight and when they come back they find in Molen­beek the lo­gis­ti­cal sup­port and the net­works they need to carry out ter­ror­ist at­tacks, be it here in Bel­gium or abroad. “It’s like an air­base for ji­hadists.”

One of the main at­trac­tions, in­ves­ti­ga­tors say, is weaponry. Some of that, said Nils Du­quet, a re­searcher at the Flem­ish Peace In­sti­tute, dates back to be­fore 2006 when Bel­gium, whose sta­te­owned FN Her­stal sidearm man­u­fac­turer sup­plied many of the world’s armies, also had a re­laxed ap­proach to gun own­er­ship. “With the right con­nec­tions, it’s quite easy to find il­le­gal weapons in Bel­gium,” Du­quet said. “Crim­i­nals used to come to buy weapons legally. And they kept com­ing be­cause they found the right net­works and peo­ple here to get weapons, even af­ter 2006.”

Kalash­nikov as­sault ri­fles of the kind used in the at­tacks in Paris in Jan­uary and on Fri­day, were mostly from stocks left af­ter the war in the for­mer Yu­goslavia and mostly reached western Europe in the back of a car, he said. In­ves­ti­ga­tors are look­ing into links be­tween the Paris at­tacks and a man from Mon­tene­gro ar­rested with guns in his car in Ger­many this month.

Euro­pean Union in­te­rior min­is­ters will hold an emer­gency meet­ing in Brussels on Fri­day at France’s re­quest and will deal yet again with long­stand­ing con­cerns about traf­fic in firearms. How­ever, just as a lack of co­or­di­na­tion among the EU’s 28 states is blamed by many for a flour­ish­ing trade across their open bor­ders, Bel­gium’s ex­treme form of de­cen­tralised gov­ern­ment makes it hard to crack down on deal­ers even in one small state. “In Bel­gium, there’s a prob­lem with data man­age­ment. No­body knows how many il­le­gal weapons there are in Bel­gium,” said Du­quet. “The re­al­ity is we have no idea.” —Reuters

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Kuwait

© PressReader. All rights reserved.