The truth about Jihadi Central

12 Mins read

Molenbeek is now well-known around the world as Europe jihadi’s central. Why has this Brussels-district been dubbed the breeding ground for terrorism and what are the authorities doing to prevent further radicalisation?

Three months after the Paris attacks, international headlines and televised debates left anger in Molenbeek.

Police made arrests in the Brussels-district after it was revealed four of the jihadis involved in the November Paris attacks lived in the area.

Belgian intelligence services have warned of serious terrorism threats after a series of failed attacks.

Before the Paris massacre last November, one of the recent Isis attacks in Belgium was the Brussels Jewish Museum shootings in May 2014, where four people were shot by jihadi Mehdi Nemmouche, a 29-year-old French national of Algerian origin who had travel to Syria to join Isis.

Another serious attempt of terrorism was overpowered by US soldiers last August, who stopped a heavily armed gunman opening fire on passengers travelling in the express train near the French-Belgian border. Police searched houses in Molenbeek after it was revealed the attacker Mr Khazzani lived in the district and spent time in the local mosques.

[pullquote align=”right”]“Almost every time there’s a link with Molenbeek”[/pullquote]

Reports from investigations and international newspapers on the latest Isis terror attacks in Europe have all led the focus to the Brussels-district in recent months.

“Almost every time there’s a link with Molenbeek,” Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel said.

“Now we’ll have to get repressive. It’s been a form of laissez-faire and laxity. Now we’re paying the bill.”

The latest figures from the Belgian authorities shows that as many as 500 Belgians have gone to Syria and Irak as jihadi, a number that hasn’t plummeted since last year’s first big attack at the Charlie Hebdo’s office in Paris.

Police raids were made in Molenbeek and 16 people were arrested in connection with the Paris attackers, after it emerged that the Abdeslam brothers and the suspected ring leader, who took part in the Bataclan shootings, were on a terrorist watch list given by Belgian secret service to Francoise Schepmans, the mayor of Molenbeek.

That the jihadists had close links to the neighbourhood in Europe’s capital didn’t surprise the locals in Molenbeek.

Many gathered at the Grand Place in the centre of Molenbeek after the attacks in Paris to light up candles with Mohamed Abdeslam, brother of the two jihadi, who condemned the killings.

At the Grand Place there was more cameras and journalists than residents, a media presence that angered some locals.

Intellectuals and social workers denounced the media ghettoization of Molenbeek, dumping blame to the families and locals of the neighborhood.

In Belgian radio stations and newspapers, a fierce debate is ongoing about the governmental failures to acknowledge the deeper misery the district faced for decades. What does Molenbeek and the strong links it has with jihadi tells us about the Belgian state?

LA HAINE in Brussels?

In contrast to the French banlieues which are far from city centres, Molenbeek is only a 15-minute walk from the European institutions in the centre of Brussels, close to the canal which splits the city in half. The capital is one of the three counties in Belgium and has 19 boroughs, including <<Brussels-city>> and Molenbeek.

Molenbeek feels very different from central Brussels. While walking down the narrow commercial streets of the district on a late Friday afternoon, I saw a boubou-dressed Christian black man speaking Camerounese on his cell phone; an elderly Algerian woman in a hijab who answered in Arabic when I asked her to find my way; Muslim men in djellabahs’ walking briskly to arrive in time for the second last prayer and two Turkish girls who walked me to the community centre Le Foyer, where Johan Leman was patiently waiting.

The town square of Brussels' Molenbeek

The town square of Brussels’ Molenbeek

The people I met through my investigation were charming and helpful, yet for a time I felt unease walking past some cafes with no or little female presence. Maghrebi cafes are part of the metropolitan culture in France and Belgium, where African and North-African men meet up to socialize.

As in most Arab countries, men consume large amount of coffee and cigarettes sitting out on the pavement terrace watching passersby.

My friend Jade, who lives in the area, tells me that she often quickens her pace when we are walking past these cafes. “You know how we kind of feel watched,” she tells me. “I just don’t want to be annoyed, so I speed up.”

Social housing stands next door to private homes, interspersed with refurbished factories and warehouses dating from the industrial revolution.

Without exploring in great details the history of the district, Molenbeek was the most thriving industrial neighborhood of Brussels, due to its close proximity with the canal.

Known as “Little Manchester” back in the 18th century, social and economic decline combined with the decay of its industries left Molenbeek in a poor state.

Some parts of Molenbeek resemble slums: uncollected bins and graffiti-covered walls exacerbate the wretched landscape.

In some parts of Molenbeek 80 per cent of Belgian citizens are of Moroccan origin. The district is home to generations of immigrants, from the first Italians and Spanish migrants in the 1940s to the recent waves of Arabs, Turkish and Africans.

One of the key features of Molenbeek is its large young population, with 28 per cent of the population aged under 18.

A demographic explosion had spread across the neighborhood over the last decade, with a 36 per cent increase of children aged 3 to 5.

Many of these youngsters are the children or grandchildren of those who came to work after the 1964 labour treaty betwen Turkey, Morocco and Belgium. Low-skilled workers were needed for construction work, such as the Brussels underground train; jobs that the Belgians didn’t want.

According to anthropologists Alexandre Laumonier and Johan Leman, if there are any closed “ghettos” in Brussels, one has to visit wealthy districts such as Uccle, where “bureaucrats, yuppies and french tax evaders pile up” earning what could “[financially] sustain 20 families in Molenbeek.”

A no-go zone?

The recent media portrayal of Molenbeek as a “breeding ground of terrorism” and “Europe’s jihadi central” echoes the moral panic international broadcasters spread following the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January 2015, with Fox News in the USA claiming that Birmingham was a “Muslim city and no-go area for non-Muslims”.

At the same time in January a well-known war phototographer living in the Brussels-district published a scathing piece in the Politico Europe website.

“I finally left Molenbeek in 2014. It was not out of fear. The tipping point, I remember, was an encounter with a Salafist, who tried to convert me on my street. It boiled down to this: I could no longer stand to live in this despondent, destitute, fatalistic neighborhood.”

Photographer Teun Voeten isn’t the only one who publicly announced his departure from Molenbeek. Professional footballer Romelu Lukaku said he wanted to sell his house due to fear of terrorism, a statement in stark contrast with colleague Vincent Kompany who defended the neighbourhood against media demonisation.

My friend Jade calls me two weeks before I arrive in Brussels and mentions an incident that took place during the police raids in Molenbeek.

“We were told to stay at home, which made everyone anxious.” Jade decided to get tobacco at a nearby corner shop. “I was wearing a short skirt and when I opened the door, the shop keeper and his colleagues weirdly stared at me until I left the shop,” she told me.

Hélène Detroz works with young professional mothers in need of day care. She came from Liège in the 1990s with her husband Thierry and their two young daughters.

The couple enjoy living in Molenbeek, the “multiculturalism and cheap rent” were incentives for them to move in the area. When I ask Hélène about the family’s social life, she tells me her two young daughters don’t want to live in Molenbeek anymore.

“My girls don’t hang out in the area, nor do they invite friends at home,” Hélène says.

Insecurity and lack of social cohesion have entrenched locals into what the French call communautarisme, a form of segregation by group identity.

Many corner shops and cafés in Molenbeek are just fronts for drug dealing, Hélène Detroz tells me, adding that most of these clandestine businesses have been known by the local authorities for some time.

Brahim Abdeslam, one of those involved in the November attacks in Paris, was the owner of the Café des Béguines in Molenbeek, which closed after the police found the venue was used for illegal drug dealing.

Former mayor Philippe Moureaux received harsh accusations after the attacks for failed policies and cronyism during his 20-year reign in the district.

Proselytism or politics?

The majority of the mosques in the district are religiously pluralists within Islam, combining Tariq Ramadan followers and more radical imams such as Rachid Abou Houdeyfa.

[pullquote]“The original sin in Belgium was to give the keys of Islam to Saudi Arabia in 1973.”[/pullquote]

Local mosque in Molenbeek

There are few official mosques which the Belgian government finance – budget deficit and imams’ wages are covered- as the biggest mosques “don’t want to be held accountable,” Johan Leman tells me, adding, “they receive black finance from Qatar and Saudi Arabia with ‘volunteers’ paid off the books.”

For the Brussels minister Rachid Madrane, “the original sin in Belgium was to give the keys of Islam to Saudi Arabia in 1973.”

In 1969 King Faycal of Saudi Arabia offered generous donations for the victims of a deadly fire in Brussels.

To thank him and to facilitate oil contracts, the King of Belgians decided to hand over the keys of the Oriental Pavillon in the capital’s Cinquantenaire park.

The Belgium Islamic and Cultural Centre (ICC) and the European headquarters for the Worldwide Islamic league were built in, both NGOs that played key roles in the spread of Saudi Wahhabism in Belgium.

There’s another branch of mosque less transparent with its religious teaching and practices. Prayer halls, which can be placed anywhere, from small community buildings to upstairs rooms in cafés.

“That is where radicalisation can start,” as Johan explains to me. “Belgians have known for years where it [radicalisation] happens, but they turn a blind eye to the problem.”


A jilted community

In Brussels-West, a poverty crescent has spread, from Saint-Josse to Shaerbeek through Molenbeek. These districts have one thing in common: the proportion of young people in the global population is substantially bigger than in the rest of Brussels.

The booming birth rate in the area led to a shortage of places in nurseries and primary schools in Molenbeek.

Johan Lemans tells me the schooling system is discriminatory, with little cohesive structure to integrate those who just arrived to Belgium.

Classroom overcrowding and lack of integration in the the education system leaves many young people behind.


Unemployment rate in Brussels. Piktochart

Unemployment rate in Brussels. Piktochart


In Molenbeek 52 per cent of young people aged between 18 and 24 left secondary school without any qualifications.

Having no diplomas makes it harder for young people to enter the job market, which turned into the knowledge economy since migration waves of low-skilled workers 50 years ago.

These difficulties are exemplified with the fact that, with the same diploma, there is proportionally more unemployment in Molenbeek when compared to the regional average.

45 per cent of those aged between 18 and 24 are unemployed, a figure that has been rocketing since the 1980s.

On January 10th, the Brussels government launched a new work scheme to bring employers near the canal, where the poorest disctricts -from Anderlecht to Shaerbeek through Molenbeek- are located.

Local governments allowed businesses to pay less council tax under the condition they settle near the canal to give young people work and contacts.

New jobs remain in the lower-skilled sector with placements in German food company Lidl and call-centers such as Tele-performance in Molenbeek, which in 2013 outsourced its activities to the Netherlands.

The canal that splits the city in half.

The canal which splits the city in half.

[pullquote align=”right”]“no one wants to write in their CVs they come from Molenbeek”[/pullquote]

No middle class in sight

For those who managed to climb up the social ladder, moving out of Molenbeek is often an indication of “success”. “It has to do with the psychology of upward mobility,” Johan tells me, adding, “no one wants to write in their CVs they come from Molenbeek.”

In 2010 former mayor Philippe Moureaux set up a regeneration scheme to attract the middle-class to a residential complex in the Old Molenbeek.

However those who moved to the area aren’t taking part in local life, as politician Sarah Turine explains.

“The problem is that the newcomers don’t want to put their kids in the local schools, nor do they want to shop here. They’d rather cross the canal.”

Discrimination from employers due to race or location in Belgium echoes the bias against practicing Muslims in France.

When I met Aussama, a law student at the Université Libre de Bruxelles (ULB), he tells me having an Arabic name and living in Molenbeek were double barriers preventing him getting a job.

“At one point I thought I’d change my name to one that sounds more western,” he tells me.

According to the latest report from the European Network Against Racism (ENAR), 37.5 per cent of discrimination complaints when applying for a job are racial, leading to an “ethnic stratification” in the labour market.

To have a better chance to get a job interview, Aussama decided to take his friend’s address in Schuman, close to the European Parliament.

For the youngest of Brussels, getting out of Molenbeek is more difficult. In May 2008, a study at the ULB showed that those with poor socio-economic backgrounds hardly left their neighbourhoods to use new urban spaces, when social codes and language constitute barriers for the disaffected youth.

“There are really rich ‘closed areas’ in Brussels,” Jade tells me, after visiting one of her classmate in Uccle, who she described as a bobo. The pejorative term is used for the upper middle-class children of the 1960s generation, meaning bourgeois bohemian.

51 per cent of people living of Molenbeek do not pay council taxes and 57 per cent of the population lives below the poverty line. The growing number of people who aren’t paying council taxes, combined with harsh economic contraction, left the district close to bankruptcy last April.

Lack of schools, little public or private investments and feeling of insecurity are all agents in the emergence of radicalisation.

Political laissez-faire

In 1987 Flemish TV VRT broadcasted a Panorama documentary interviewing social workers warning of the dangers of neglect in Molenbeek, leaving the ground fertile for religious radicalisation and petty criminality.

Johan Leman is in his forties in the film and already a vocal campaigner for change in the district. In the reportage he warns of the explosive rebellion young people might turn to, at a time when politicians have turned their back on them.

30 years on and Johan Leman has never had more work than in recent months in his community centre, with journalists from around the world all wanting to know where the jihadists had come from. If the problem was known for more than three decades, why has so little been done?

After the Paris attacks, the Interior Minister Jan Jambon, member of the Flemish nationalist party Nieuvw-Vlaamse Alliantie (N-VA), said he will “personally take care of Molenbeek”.

In a bid to “clean up the district”, Jambon set up plans to search in every single house, a strategy seen as ridiculous for Leman, who works with families of those who have been radicalised.

“He should’ve simply asked where extremism hides and he’ll get a straight answer,” Johan tells me, seemingly irritated of Jambon’s aggressive stance towards the Molenbeek population.

Police repression

On February 5th the Plan Canal, the new anti-terrorism strategy, was unveiled to the public. Reinforcement of police presence in Molenbeek and seven other districts was the main highlight of the plan, with 21.8 million euros (£17.01 billion) and 485 more police staff spread around the canal in Brussels.

A “system of apartheid” has formed in Brussels, as Paul Yacob, a police complaints’ officer, told the BBC at a police training academy in January. He denounced the governmental response as out of touch from the reality in Molenbeek.

According to Yacob, new police recruits have little understanding of the youth culture or Islam. Few of the security staff come from Molenbeek or speak Arabic, a problem for the Muslim community which represent 25 per cent of the population in the district.

Reports from The International Observatory of Prisons (OIP) shows visible signs of radicalisation are becoming more difficult to spot, when radicalised young people often hide their ideological or religious views to avoid police, teachers, friends or family’s suspicion.

A dysfunctional state

What will happen to Molenbeek in the following months, and years to come?

Molenbeek’s failures have shown the world how divisive Brussels is, despite being one of the richest cities in Europe.

What struck me most was the immense fracture between the cleanliness and spacious avenues of Brussels-city and the more narrow and grim corners of the streets in the same Brussels, few train stops from the European institutions, where thousands of bureaucrats come to work everyday.

The machinery that is the Belgian administration, with local, regional and federal bring governmental plans and policies close to Kafkaesque nightmares.

Because of the complex Brussels-Flanders divide, which makes financial funds for services and infrastructures harder to distribute effectively, taking Molenbeek out of its misery is a challenge for local politicians and social workers.

Le Foyer, the largest community center in Molenbeek.

Le Foyer, the largest community center in Molenbeek.

The Flemish government has cut all its funding for Le Foyer, which has been central to the social cohesion of minorities and young people in the north-western part of Brussels.

On February 8th, 29 police staff out the 50 hired by the Interior minister Jan Jambon arrived in Molenbeek to fight radicalisation and criminality with the help of local security agencies.

If Jan Jambon promised to “clean-up” Molenbeek, he is going to have a hard time gathering all instruments and people in Brussels, where his repressive strategy is perceived as a political stunt to attract popularity in the country. Yet Jambon’s party, the Flemish nationalist N-VA, doesn’t have much voice in the capital, home to a large majority of French-speakers.

In Belgium the political class is out of touch with the lives of the disadvantaged, let alone its young generation that has so much to offer for the country’s prosperity.

For the world, Molenbeek earned a reputation as a no-go place where bearded imams preach in every street corners.

But the anger and despair felt by those living in Molenbeek long before the rise of radicalisation revealed another side of Europe’s capital.

For too long the Belgium state ignored the social and economic problems its poorest citizens face, with high rates of unemployment, scarce public services and petty crimes.

Today Molenbeek is paying a harsh price for the nation’s neglect and laissez-faire. Its most vulnerable young people are trying to fill the void the dysfunctional state left behind, at huge cost to the whole of Europe.

Photographs by Ulysse Navaro, http://narvalys.tumblr.com/

Mural in MolenbeekMolenbeek canalEntrance to FoyerMolenbeek mosqueMolenbeek ParkTower block in MolenbeekMolenbeek canal and bargeMolenbeek squareMolenbeek shopsMolenbeek canalside roadMolenbeek storeMolenbeek store with arabic writingMolenbeek PiazzaMolenbeek bridge
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