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Molenbeek: The Belgian neighbourhood that’s become a terrorist breeding ground

November 16 2015, 14:57

Image 0THE world's attention may be on Paris where an unimaginable terror offensive has shot fear through the Western world, but some 300km away, there's a quiet neighbourhood with a radicalisation problem that's even more frightening.

Investigations into Friday's carefully co-ordinated attacks have led authorities to a small district of Brussels, and they've discovered a breeding ground for terrorists.

Molenbeek already has a reputation when it comes to terror activity.

Even before being linked to the worst attack on France since WWII, the impoverished district on the edge of Belgium's capital was known for homing battle-hardened or aspiring extremists.

In 2001, it was in Molenbeek where the assassins of Afghanistan's anti-Taliban commander Ahmad Shah Massoud had stayed.

It was also home for a while for Hassan El Haski, who was found guilty of being one of the masterminds of the 2004 Madrid train bombings.

Mehdi Nemmouche, the main suspect in the Jewish Museum attack in Brussels in May last year, also stayed there.

And Ayoub El Khazzani, the perpetrator of the foiled attack in August on a Paris-bound train from Amsterdam, stayed in Molenbeek with his sister before boarding the locomotive in Brussels.

“I notice that each time there is a link with Molenbeek," Belgium Prime Minister Charles Michel said on Sunday.

“This is a gigantic problem."

Prosecutors on Sunday disclosed a growing Belgian connection to the Paris attacks as Premier Charles Michel conceded that the Brussels neighbourhood was a “gigantic problem" given its past links to international terrorism.

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Belgian prosecutors co-operating with their French counterparts said two assailants killed in Friday's attacks were Frenchmen who had lived in Brussels, that two cars tied to the attacks found in Paris were rented in Belgium, and Belgian police detained seven people.

At least one of the dead assailants and five of the people arrested in raids on Saturday had spent time in the poor immigrant Brussels district of Molenbeek, officials said.

Belgium also issued an international warrant for the arrest of Salah Abdeslam, who lived in Molenbeek, while his brother Mohammed, who was arrested in this neighbourhood while returning from Paris, is still in custody, officials said.

A third brother Brahim died after having set off his explosives-laden suicide belt near a cafe in Paris' 11th district, investigators said.

The trail led to the three brothers following the discovery of two cars registered in Belgium, one of them near the Bataclan concert hall where 89 people were gunned down, and the other in a Paris suburb, Belgian prosecutors said.

The results of the probe so far highlight how Molenbeek has for two decades lodged Islamist extremists who have fought or supported wars in Algeria, Afghanistan and Bosnia as well as in Syria and Iraq.

“It's not the only one in Belgium, it is certainly not the only one in Europe, but it is a hotbed for jihadism," analyst Claude Moniquet told AFP.

Belgium as a whole has spawned nearly 500 jihadists for Syria and Iraq from a population of only 11 million — the highest figure per capita in the European Union, security services said. Molenbeek itself is the source of the highest concentration of jihadi foreign fighters in Europe.

What is striking is that Belgium and more specifically Molenbeek remain a haven for extremists despite the toughening of anti-terrorist legislation as well as the dismantling of recruitment networks since the 1990s.

“Europe no longer has borders and it is therefore logical that (extremists) benefit too," Brussels mayor Yvan Mayeur said Sunday.

“But we must stop being a base for those who make war in Europe," he said. Molenbeek, where a large Muslim community lives, including a radical minority, is more than ever in the eye of the storm.

“Among this small minority, there are figures known at the European and international levels," according to Moniquet, CEO of the Brussels-based European Strategic Intelligence and Security Center.

They lure people online, he added, comparing the neighbourhood's jihadist influence to that of Finsbury Park in London about 15 years ago.

Part of the reason Molenbeek became such a hotbed is because local politicians failed for years to face up to extremism in order to keep “social peace" and continue getting elected, Moniquet said.

Prime Minister Michel has acknowledged the problem.

“In the last few months, many initiatives have been launched in the fight against radicalisation, but there should be a greater crackdown," he told media on Sunday.

“We are going to work more intensely with the local authorities. The Federal Government is ready to provide more means."

But the small borough which sits just across the canal from Brussels' bustling and culture-filled city centre has more going for it than churning out jihadists, at least according to its deputy mayor Ahmed El Khannouss.

“Molenbeek has always been a transit community," he told The Guardian.

“I know everyone thinks it's a base for radicals and terrorists, but a lot of that is stigmatisation."

He pointed to the bustling Sunday morning market as evidence of the district's multicultural liveliness.

“It's extremely dangerous to link these radicals with the local population."

But regardless of its redeeming features, Belgium has had to accept Molenbeek has a problem.

Belgium's interior minister Jam Jambon said it was essential to examine why the neighbourhood remained such a problem.

“But one thing's for sure. We just can't accept this situation any longer."

Deaking University terror expert Professor Greg Barton told news.com.au the situation in Molenbeek meant Belgium was one of the most at-risk countries in the world when it came to future Paris-style terror attacks.

“The situation in Belgium is very precarious, they have an even higher level of terror threat as France," he said.

“One of the reasons France was first is there were networks (of IS supporters) established there and able to communicate on the ground. That is true of Brussels as well."

Source: news.com.au

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