NEWS ANALYSIS: When extremist Islamism in Belgium is discussed, news media tend to focus on the Brussels neighbourhood of Molenbeek. The Belgian reality is more complex.
IN EARLY OCTOBER, an assailant stabbed two police officers outside the Brugmann hospital in the Brussels municipality of Schaarbeek.
The man fled, but another police unit quickly apprehended him after shooting him in the leg. Belgian and international news media identified the suspect as 43-year-old Belgian citizen Hicham Diop, a successful kick boxer who had served in the Belgian army until 2009. Later, his 46-year-old brother was also arrested and charged with belonging to a terror group. At his home, a list of police officers and court officials was found, but the Belgian federal prosecutor said the names are probably not part of a target list.
Terrorism was immediately suspected, as the younger Diop was known to sympathize and have contact with extremist Islamists, including Belgian foreign fighters. According to Belgian Interior Minister Jan Jambon, Diop was also on a government watch list prior to the attack. Belgian newspapers claimed Diop had been involved with a radical imam and self-declared sheikh, the French-Syrian Bassam Ayachi, since 2003. At that time, Ayachi ran a makeshift mosque in the municipality of Molenbeek, promoting ultra-conservative Salafist interpretations of Islam. Today, Ayachi lives in Syria, where he is reportedly part of an Islamist militia fighting both the Syrian regime and ISIS.
On Monday, 10 October, magistrates had to decide whether Diop and his brother were to remain in custody. While the younger Diop’s lawyers did not demand his release, they told the examining judge that his actions were motivated by a personal grudge against the police rather than terrorism. In 2011, Diop was seriously injured in a road accident when he was hit by a police vehicle in the street near his home. His lawyers also called Diop “confused”, saying he did not always know exactly what he was doing and was often under the influence of a “cocktail” of drugs. They also claimed he had not had contact with his older brother for years.
As the investigation continues, we are sure to learn more about Diop’s motive and about any connections he may or may not have had to terrorist groups. However, Belgium is on edge after suffering two major terror attacks on 22 March 2016. There have been several bomb scares in the past few weeks, including what reports say was a phoned-in bomb threat that forced the evacuation of Gare du Nord, one of Brussels’ three main railway stations.
WHENEVER THERE’S TALK OF TERRORISM IN BELGIUM, there’s also talk of Molenbeek, a neighbourhood in central Brussels that is one of the 19 municipalities of the Brussels-Capital Region. The municipality – home to about 95,000 people – is part of the so-called “poor croissant” (or croissant pauvre, in French) of Brussels. So is Schaerbeek. These neighbourhoods are densely populated and have high unemployment rates; the youth unemployment rate in Molenbeek is a staggering 40 per cent.
The centre of Brussels and the well-known Grand Place are both a relatively short walk from Molenbeek. The steel and glass buildings of the European quarter are just a few metro stops away. In some ways, however, Molenbeek feels like a different world, or at least a different country. While the “poor croissant” as a whole is largely populated by people with origins outside Belgium, Molenbeek is first and foremost home to a large Belgian-Moroccan community. In recent years it has also gained a reputation for being a “jihadist hotbed”, or as Time Magazine put it: “Molenbeek has a sad and distinguished history with Islamic extremism.” When the anti-Taliban leader Ahmad Shah Massoud in Afghanistan was assassinated in 2001, his killers were found to have links to Molenbeek. One of the 2004 Madrid train bombers also had Molenbeek ties. Mehdi Nemmouche, who was allegedly behind the attack at the Jewish Museum of Belgium in 2014, was a Frenchman, but had spent time in Molenbeek prior to the attack. One of the perpetrators of the January 2015 attacks in Paris, Amedy Coulibaly, reportedly bought his weapons in Molenbeek. And, of course, the trail from the November 2015 terror attacks led straight to Molenbeek.
“Most Belgians were stunned to hear that police had raided addresses in Brussels and arrested suspects, less than 24 hours after the Paris attacks,” the British newspaper The Independent reported. “However, few were surprised to hear that the swoops took place in Molenbeek, a run-down east Brussels commune that has long been a magnet for jihadists, gangs, drugs and lawlessness.” The article’s headline said Molenbeek is a “police no-go zone”.
I’VE VISITED MOLENBEEK QUITE A FEW TIMES. I’ve been invited to dinner there, enjoying marvellous food and good wine with friends. Twice I stayed at the urbane and youthful Meininger Hotel by the Brussels-Charleroi Canal, which was once the industrial lifeline of the municipality, then known as “Little Manchester”. I have visited the busy Thursday market, and strolled the streets of Molenbeek, both on my own and in the company of others. One of those was a policeman with intimate knowledge of the neighbourhood, a man quick to point out both the trouble spots and the nice playgrounds and expensive-looking, recently renovated houses, protected by heavy doors. I’ve walked past the house in which Salah Abdelslam – one of the Paris attackers of November 2015 – was finally cornered. I have had lunch at Molenbeek snackbars. I’ve drunk sweet mint tea on the street and I’ve perused Islamic children’s books in a bookstore.
And of course, I’ve also heard the stories. Molenbeek has a long-standing reputation of social problems, of crime, of drugs, and of lawlessness. The rumours aren’t groundless, but Molenbeek is far from being the desperate neighbourhood of high-rise buildings and concrete one might imagine based on media reports. In fact, Molenbeek has its charming sides, and is hardly a no-go zone in any real sense. Even poverty isn’t that visible, until you start looking. My companion, the police officer, said I should see the way many people in Molenbeek actually live, inside their cramped apartments. He’s right, of course. Back in 2011, a columnist in the Flemish newspaper De Morgen described Molenbeek as “a monoculture of poverty”.
Statistics, however, point to even greater poverty in another part of Brussels’ “poor croissant”: Saint-Josse-ten-Noode.
For visitors, the striking thing about Molenbeek isn’t so much the poverty as the strong feeling of being in a Moroccan neighbourhood, an Arabic neighbourhood, a neighbourhood transfixed.
THERE ARE SEVERAL PROBLEMS in painting Molenbeek with a broad brush. One is underestimating the problems with extremist Islamism that communities across Belgium face. Sure, if one looks at the statistics for Belgian “foreign terrorist fighters”, Molenbeek is the municipality ranking second-highest in the databank of CUTA, the Belgian Coordination Unit for Threat Assessment. CUTA’s numbers, as reported by the Dutch-language weekly Knack in late August, showed that 50 people had left Molenbeek to fight in the Syrian civil war. Another 46 had left from the municipality of Bruxelles-Ville, 35 from Schaerbeek and 30 from Vilvoorde, a Flemish town just outside of Brussels.
In relative numbers, Vilvoorde is more of a “jihadist hotspot” than Molenbeek.
However, the list is topped by the municipality of Antwerp, the largest city of Flanders. Of course, the municipality of Antwerp has a larger population than any of the 19 municipalities of Brussels. Importantly, however, it was also the base of the now defunct group Sharia4Belgium, which was a key network in recruiting Belgian foreign fighters.
The statistics also reveal something else: extreme Islamism – at least if one measures the numbers of foreign fighters – seems much less of a problem in the French-speaking region of Wallonia than in both Dutch-speaking Flanders and the officially bilingual Brussels capital region.
Some of that may be explained by demographics: Brussels and Antwerp are both home to large Moroccan-Belgian communities, and a majority of Belgian foreign fighters have a Moroccan ethnic background. That also explains why Ghent – the second-largest city in Flanders – is home to just a handful of foreign fighters. Ghent is known for its Turkish community. Turkish-Belgians make up the second-largest Muslim diaspora group in Belgium, while few Turks are found among Belgian recruits to the jihadist cause. Several reasons for this have been advanced. One is that Turkish mosques in Belgium are often sponsored by the Turkish state, leaving little room for the hardline Salafist interpretations embraced by extremist groups. Some researchers also point to the Turkish community’s more tightly knit structure, a trait that strengthens social control while providing a safety net. Young Moroccans are more vulnerable to discrimination.
But why fewer Walloons than Flemings? Some of the people I’ve spoken to believe it has to do with nativism being stronger in Flanders than in Wallonia. If you’re a Moroccan kid in Antwerp, there’s always something there to remind you that you don’t belong.
DIGGING INTO THE BELGIAN STATISTICS can provide us with some insight into the challenge of finding simple explanations. Surely, socio-economic explanations seem to be fit the bill when it comes to Molenbeek. It should be no surprise that extremist recruiters find more fertile ground for their seeds of hatred in neighbourhoods burdened by social problems, high levels of unemployment and among young men who are already outsiders and often involved in petty crime.
But if that was all, it would be reasonable to expect to find more recruits from other immigrant groups as well as from the largest city in Wallonia – Charleroi, with its population of 200,000. Charleroi may be known as one of the birthplaces of Belgian comic strip culture, but the city has also been described as Europe’s ugliest and most depressing. Once a thriving coal and steel city, it has been suffering from urban decline. It is, in short, a post-industrial place, not unlike Molenbeek. In other ways too, Charleroi seems to fit the bill: it has large communities of immigrant origin, high unemployment and a considerable crime problem. It has also been linked to international terrorism. In 2005, Muriel Degauque, a Belgian woman who had converted to Islam and been drawn into political and religious extremism, became a suicide bomber in an attack against a U.S. military convoy in Baghdad. More recently, this August, a machete-wielding Algerian man living illegally in Belgium attacked two police officers in Charleroi. The assault is believed to have been terror-related and the self-declared Islamic State claimed the man was one of its soldiers”.
Yet, how many people have actually left Charleroi to join up with jihadists in Syria? We know of just three from the city of 200,000. By comparison, at least four left from Maaseik, a town of about 25,000 people on the Dutch border in the rural Flemish province of Limburg.
WHAT THIS TELLS US ISN’T SURPRISING: individuals matter. Networks matter, too. Back in 2014, a Maaseik fighter – calling himself Abou Shaheed – posted a picture on his Facebook account, standing beside a pick-up truck and holding an assault rifle. His Facebook profile had previously carried another name: Fayssal Oussaih.
As the Belgian journalist Guy Van Vlierden pointed out at the time, the name Oussaih “rings a bell for anyone familiar with the extremist scene of Maaseik”. Back in 2006, several people residing in the rather provincial little town were convicted at a trial in Brussels due to their membership in Groupe Islamique Combattant Marocain, or GICM, an al-Qaeda-linked organisation blamed for terror attacks in Madrid in 2004 and Casablanca in 2003. One defendant was tried in absentia, having already been imprisoned in Syria, which at the time was the gateway for foreigners seeking to join extremist groups fighting the U.S. military presence in Iraq. His name was Khalid Oussaih. According to the Dutch-language weekly Humo, Khalid is an older cousin of Fayssal Oussaih.
It wasn’t the only connection between Oussaih and the older generation. According to Van Vlierden, the younger Oussaih was Facebook a friend of Khalid Bouloudo and Abdallah Oaubour, both of whom were both sentenced to five years in jail for being members of GICM.
Belgium has the highest relative number of jihadist recruits amongst all the EU countries. It is a story can and should be approached from at least two angles. One has to do with vulnerability, and the statistics are clear: young men with a Moroccan family background are more vulnerable than youngsters from a Turkish background, while young Moroccan-Belgian in Flanders seem more vulnerable than their counterparts in Wallonia. Another has to do with connections. Although the Internet plays a central role in the spread of jihadist propaganda, lists of Belgian foreign fighters provide few examples of individuals becoming radicalized online, while there are many examples of recruits who knew each other – who grew up together, went to school together and lived as friends, cousins and siblings on the same streets.
OF COURSE, Belgium’s problems do not stop there. Having spoken to researchers, journalists and frontline workers, I have heard many variants of the same story about Belgium’s complex federal structure stymieing anti-radicalization efforts. Many spoke of a lack of cooperation between different police departments and a lack of communication not only between municipalities but between the French-speaking south and the Dutch-speaking north. Some have spoken about the slowness of Belgian bureaucracy.
And some say political willingness to address the problems had been lacking for years before the international news media began sending reporters to Molenbeek. One holding that view is Peter Calluy, a former social worker in Boom, a town of about 16,000 people and the hometown of Fouad Belkacem, who eventually became the leader of Sharia4Belgium, the most notorious of the networks said to recruit foreign fighters in the country. Calluy encountered Belkacem, who himself was a volunteer at a youth centre, and soon realized that the young man was peddling extremist ideas. He warned both local authorities and leading Flemish politicians, but felt he was met with disinterest or disbelief, and finally lost his job. Today, Calluy is a spokesperson for a group of Belgian ex-Muslims, although never a Muslim himself, and fiercely critical of Islam in general.
He is, however, not the only social worker who issued early warnings. Nor is he alone in feeling that his warnings went unheeded. It is a lament heard about Molenbeek, too.