Bel­gium’s Molenbeek and the ‘ji­hadist tag’

Kuwait Times - - INTERNATIONAL -

One year on from the Paris mas­sacres, the gritty dis­trict in Brus­sels that was the launch­pad for the at­tacks is strug­gling to shed its rep­u­ta­tion as a ji­hadist hot­bed. Molenbeek, a largely im­mi­grant neigh­bor­hood, is no­to­ri­ous not only for its role in the Novem­ber 13 atroc­i­ties in France, but also as the home to per­pe­tra­tors of the deadly March 22 bomb­ings on the Bel­gian cap­i­tal’s metro and air­port.

“Even in France, when you say ‘Molenbeek,’ it means ter­ror­ist for them. That makes me feel bad for all of Bel­gium,” Molenbeek res­i­dent Kamel said with­out giv­ing his last name. The Ab­deslam fam­ily still lives in Molenbeek’s main square, but with­out two of its four sons. Brahim blew him­self up in a Paris cafe on Novem­ber 13, while his brother Salah, the only known sur­viv­ing mem­ber of the ji­hadist squad, awaits trial in a prison south of Paris.

Mo­hamed Abrini, the so-called “Man in the hat” seen on CCTV at Brus­sels air­port just be­fore the at­tack there, lived in an apart­ment only 50 me­ters from the Ab­deslam fam­ily. Paris ring­leader Ab­del­hamid Abaaoud also hailed from Molenbeek be­fore be­com­ing an Is­lamic State fighter in Syria and dy­ing out­side Paris in a French po­lice raid five days af­ter the at­tacks. Two days af­ter last year’s atroc­i­ties, Bel­gian Prime Min­is­ter Charles Michel called for a “greater crack­down” in Molenbeek as he de­scribed its links to mil­i­tants as “a gi­gan­tic prob­lem”.

‘Canal plan’

Michel’s gov­ern­ment has since launched the so-called “Canal Plan” to fight rad­i­cal­i­sa­tion in Molenbeek and other poor im­mi­grant and crime-rid­den neigh­bor­hoods. The plan is named for an old in­dus­trial wa­ter­way which passes through them. In Molenbeek, au­thor­i­ties have de­ployed 50 ex­tra po­lice of­fi­cers and closed nearly 100 com­mu­nity as­so­ci­a­tions, cafes and se­cret mosques deemed to pro­mote Is­lamist ex­trem­ism. “We have iden­ti­fied 57 in­di­vid­u­als threat­en­ing the state,” In­te­rior Min­is­ter Jan Jam­bon said re­cently, adding they were in the sights of the in­tel­li­gence ser­vices. Molenbeek Mayor FranÁoise Schep­mans said she has re­ceived the sup­port of most of Molenbeek’s 100,000 cit­i­zens, many of them of Moroc­can ori­gin. “The im­por­tant thing is re­ally to dry up the breed­ing ground for crime, which is linked to rad­i­cal­ism,” Schep­mans said.

New ini­tia­tives have been launched, in­clud­ing Molengeek, which is try­ing to at­tract young peo­ple to cre­ate high-tech start ups. “It has at­tracted the at­ten­tion of many play­ers who want to get in­volved in in­ter­est­ing ini­tia­tives,” said co-founder Ibrahim Ouas­sari, cit­ing sup­port from US tech gi­ants Google and Mi­crosoft. Since its launch in April in an old brew­ery, the Mil­le­nium Icon­o­clast Mu­seum of Art (MIMA), which ex­hibits street art, has at­tracted 30,000 vis­i­tors from the ritzier, more fash­ion­able side of the canal.

But there is a lot of his­tory to over­come. An­a­lyst Claude Moni­quet, CEO of the Brus­sels-based Eu­ro­pean Strate­gic In­tel­li­gence and Se­cu­rity Cen­ter, said that for the past two decades Molenbeek has played host to fight­ers from wars in Al­ge­ria, Afghanistan and Bos­nia as well as in Syria and Iraq. It has even been linked to the 2001 as­sas­si­na­tion of iconic Afghan leader Ahmed Shah Mas­soud, the 2004 Madrid train bomb­ings as well as other ji­hadist at­tacks in Bel­gium, in­clud­ing the 2014 mur­der of four peo­ple at the Jew­ish mu­seum in cen­tral Brus­sels.

— AFP

BRUS­SELS: A woman walks past a mar­ket in Molenbeek’s main square, in Brus­sels. One year on from the Paris mas­sacres, the gritty dis­trict in Brus­sels that was the launch­pad for the at­tacks is strug­gling to shed its rep­u­ta­tion as a ji­hadist hot­bed.

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