Molenbeek: The Belgian epicentre of violent extremism

Branka Marijan Americas, Defence & Human Security, News

Until recently, few had heard of Molenbeek, a neighbourhood on the outskirts of Brussels, Belgium. Now the media have labeled it “Europe’s jihadi central” and a “haven for jihadists.”

The man described as the architect of last November’s Paris terrorist attacks, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, resided there. Five days ago, Salah Abdeslam, a 26-year-old French national of Moroccan descent suspected of involvement in the attacks, was shot and arrested in Molenbeek, where he had grown up.

On March 22 three bombs exploded in Brussels, striking its airport and metro system during the morning rush hour. And Molenbeek is again in the spotlight. Some analysts suggest that the attacks were in retaliation for the arrest of Abdeslam. Others see the Brussels bombings as more of a demonstration of the continuing threat posed by “jihadist” ideology. What is clear is that, as Jason Burke of The Guardian puts it, “terrorists often strike close to home.”

There is speculation that those involved in the attacks on Brussels (as was Abdeslam before his arrest) may be under the protection of criminal networks that have made Molenbeek a no-go area for local police. Not “lone wolves,”  these terrorists are embedded in communities and draw on them for support. This local support can be overlooked when media and analysts focus on global dimensions of terrorism.

Molenbeek is only a few kilometres from key European Union offices and the Brussels city centre. But, in many ways, it is worlds away from these bastions of Western privilege and wealth. One of the poorest parts of Belgium, Molenbeek is a vibrant area full of diverse individuals. The majority of the population is of Moroccan and Turkish descent. Now this area is infamous for the number of its residents who have gone to Syria and Iraq to fight as jihadis.

But Molenbeek has been neglected by the Belgian government for years. Even when the challenge of radicalization became evident, the government’s response was minimal. A few years ago, Molenbeek’s police force was offered first 40,000 and then 60,000 euros to combat radicalization. This unit of four officers has only one Arabic speaker. Molenbeek police are poorly equipped and lack the resources to deal with radicalization. Local civil authorities have also ignored the growing threat of extremism, doing little to engage the community.

Many analysts partly blame Belgium’s politics for the security governance failures in Molenbeek. Belgium’s complicated governance system is based on principles of power-sharing intended to balance the interests of the Dutch-speaking Flemish and the francophone populations. In practice, this means that Belgium has multiple levels of government.

Brussels alone has 19 municipal mayors and six different police authorities, as well as a federal service. Police forces and security agencies do not always share information and Belgian authorities have done little to address the problem. Hans Bonte, a mayor of a suburb outside Brussels, stated that the country’s security architecture is “a perfect example of organised chaos.” There is also a disconnect among the state, the police, and local communities.

All these factors allow radicals to grow their influence with little hindrance.

The attacks on Brussels and Paris will certainly preserve the focus on the global aspects of terrorism. But we cannot ignore local politics and economics. Molenbeek represents many communities that are not only experiencing problems with radicalization and social integration, but of governance in general, and policing and intelligence in particular.

Belgium must fix its fragmented security sector. Local governments and police services must learn to engage with the community and ensure that local voices are heard in what must become a national conversation about current security issues.

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