The terrorist attacks in Brussels Tuesday were the inevitable result of a threat that has been present for 20 years.
The neighborhood of Sint-Jans Molenbeek rose to fame when the investigation of the Nov. 13 terrorist attacks in Paris changed focus to Brussels. A parking ticket issued in the neighborhood was found in the suspects’ Volkswagen near the scene. Police started going door-to-door in search of suspects, but the problem has been right in front of them for a long time.
The Centre Islamique Belge (CIB), a kind of Islamic community center, was established in Molenbeek by Ayachi Bassam in 1997. A French citizen originally from Syria, Bassam created a family-run mosque that later became the base for radical extremism in Belgium. CIB turned into a recruitment base for al-Qaida in Europe, just three miles from Espace Leopold, the European Union’s headquarters, where elected members meet to discuss terrorism prevention.
Molenbeek’s location in the center of Europe, and just a short walk from an international train station that can take you to major cities such Paris, London, Amsterdam and Berlin within hours, has turned it into a European base for terrorist activities that can be linked back to al-Qaida and Islamic State.
From 9/11 to Madrid and Paris, the trail always seems to find a way back to Molenbeek — Europe’s “jihadi safe haven.”
“Almost every time there’s a link with Molenbeek,” the Belgian prime minister, Charles Michel, said in the aftermath of the Paris attacks Nov. 13 that killed 130 people. “We’ve tried prevention. Now we’ll have to get repressive. It’s been a form of laissez faire and laxity. Now we’re paying the bill.”
What used to be the industrial part of metropolitan Brussels became the place where Muslim immigrants from Morocco to Belgium settled in 1964 when Belgium needed to expand its workforce. Today, the town of 94,000 is 40 percent Muslims. It has an unemployment rate of nearly 50 percent among young adults. It is home to at least 22 mosques and just five churches. The street names are the only clue to outside observers that they are in the heart of Europe. Traditional Belgian supermarkets first stopped selling alcohol and later turned into Islamic book stores.
There used to be Jewish shops in the town center, but the last one closed for good in 2008 when the owners got tired of their shops getting terrorized by teenagers.
If you have $700 and 30 minutes to spare, you can get your hands on a machine gun with little difficulty. It was in Molenbeek two men armed themselves to carry out January’s attack on the Charlie Hebdo satirical magazine in Paris. The same went for Mehdi Nemmouche, who shot and killed four people at the Jewish Museum of Belgium in May 2014.
The establishment of a jihadi community wasn’t really known until after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the U.S. From his small, family-run mosque in Molenbeek, Bassam attracted troubled teenagers by offering money, work, psychological support and, most importantly, a sense of community. His son, Abdelrahman, had set up a website where teenagers could join and communicate with their spiritual leader, Bassam.
The story of a girl named Malika el Aroud is outlined in the book “Bombshell: Women and Terrorism” by Mia Blom. Xenophobia from teachers in school led el Aroud from a normal Belgian teenage life of partying and boys to strict Muslim living and eventually radicalization under the guidance of Bassam and CIB.
Bassam’s preachings focused on a “puritanical interpretation of Islam,” making the center “a breeding ground for extremism.” He forced his members to adapt to the strict social standards of Islam away from the Belgian and Western norms. With an “us against them” mentality, Bassam strategically became a matchmaker that wed the teenagers at an early age. For el Aroud that meant Dahmane Abdessater, a shy Moroccan immigrant. Together they shared a cult-like admiration for Osama bin Laden in the late 1990s, and spent their days watching taped videos of his preachings.
“Look at his face, don’t you think it is beautiful?” Abdessater once asked her, to which she immediately agreed.
Their worship for bin Laden grew large enough for Bassam to arrange for el Aroud and Abdessater to go to Afghanistan and join bin Laden’s terror network. They quickly rose through the ranks for their loyalty, but something was haunting Abdessater’s dreams. He was reportedly scared that he hadn’t done enough in the name of Allah during his lifetime. An opportunity soon presented itself for Abdessater, when he took a mission to assassinate Ahmad Shah Massoud, the opposition leader against the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Together with Rachid Bouraoui El Ouaer, a fellow radicalized Belgian, they carried out a suicide attempt Sept. 9, 2001, disguised as journalists interviewing Massoud. El Ouaer detonated his suicide vest and Abdessater was shot by Massoud’s bodyguards as he tried to flee the scene.
The assassination was the last obstacle for an attack on the U.S., as the Taliban was now unopposed in Afghanistan and no internal retaliation against bin Laden would take place.
What happened two days later would scar the U.S. forever.
El Aroud stayed in close contact with Bin Laden for years to come and even claims to have visited him in 2008 when he was hiding from American soldiers. She continues to preach the jihadi ideology in Belgium and has served several jail sentences for making threats and hate speech in the process.
Bassam’s CIB was the first documented case of an organized jihadi recruitment setup in Molenbeek, but far from the last.
Bassam and Jean-Francois Bastin, a Belgian convert to Islam, formed the Citizenship and Prosperity Party in 2003. Bastin eventually split and created the Young Muslims’ Party (YMP). The party called for an Islamic society and state in Belgium but realized the practical impossibility of achieving it in a Western country with Christian values.
Bastin’s goals with YMP are outlined in the “Guide to Islamist Movement” by Barry M. Rubin:
The financing of mosques, the creation of Muslim shows for state radio and television, the granting of legal holidays based on Muslim festivals, halal food in school cafeterias and permitting Muslim women to wear headscarves for identity purposes.
YMP failed to win any seats in local elections. Bastin still considered the party a success, by having fulfilled his “religious duty to call Muslims to the right path.”
This was certainly the case in Molenbeek.
A quick Internet search finds at least 22 mosques and just five churches within the neighborhood borders. Most of the mosques are not visible to the public eye. With the exception of a few, they are run out of apartment buildings where they progressively acquire more and more units as the number of members grow and donations pour in.
The Al-Khalil Mosque in the center of the Molenbeek is one of the largest in the Brussels area. It is believed to have strong ties to the Syrian arm of The Muslim Brotherhood. The street view shows your average European apartment building, but more than 600 people line up to pray each Friday, according to the janitor.
Al-Khalil posted a video on YouTube last year where it seeks donations to convert the entire structure to a Mosque. The expansion has taken place progressively over the past 30 years “thanks to Allah and the through your generous donations,” as the description of the video reads.
These hidden mosques are where a lot of the radicalization in Molenbeek is believed to take place. While large, the tight-knit communities are widely out of the spotlight, and members rarely speak of what’s going on inside.
“They tell young people that they aren’t European or Belgium and that it’s ‘us against the others,'” Brussels-based journalist Mehmet Koksal told Der Spiegel. “If a person eats publicly during Ramadan or a woman doesn’t wear a headscarf, they may become the subject of hostility.”
Most of the mosques are frequented by peaceful Muslims, where the imams regularly condemn terror attacks. Nevertheless, the mosques still make for a prime location to recruit teenagers and radicalize their beliefs.
“The Muslim community in Molenbeek is very closed,” Koksal said. “Those who aren’t a part of it are quickly viewed as being agents of enemy forces.”
Police and politicians have been unsuccessful addressing the radicalization problem in Molenbeek. Philipe Moureaux, who served as mayor of Molenbeek between 1992 and 2012, said he was “totally incapable of integrating a new wave of immigration” shortly after taking office. The neighborhood grew 30 percent over the next 15 years, from ’92 to ’07, primarily due to legal immigration.
Brussels has six police departments that share 19 districts. Police have often turned the problem into a blame game and finger pointing between the departments, which encouraged a “look the other way” culture to keep the crime records low. Police in Brussels call Molenbeek a “no-go zone” and do little to change that label.
The people who have actually been successful exposing the radicalized scene in Molenbeek have often received negative setbacks for their honesty. Hind Fraihi, a young journalist of Moroccan descent, went undercover for two months in Molenbeek in 2006 to shed light on the radicalized culture. In her book “Undercover in Little Morocco: Behind the Closed Doors Of Radical Islam,” she lays out a society where teenagers are completely swept away by their calling to Allah. She tells the story of three young men and their leader, Bassam.
Like with most European countries at the time, portraying an immigrant community in a negative light was sure to bring controversy. Her own community called her a “traitor.” The mainstream media labeled her as a girl with “problems.” It was career suicide, at least for the moment.
Nine years later, the teenagers have turned into men fighting for Islamic State in Syria. Bassam, now 69, leads a group called Islamic Front. His son, Abdelrahman, rose through the ranks of the Falcons Charm, an ISIS affiliate, where he led a brigade of 600 soldiers before getting killed in June 2013.
Fraihi saw red flags in Molenbeek long before anyone else. The people who could actually do something about the neighborhood decided to simply ignore it.
“[Bassam offered] something epic, something romantic that will give your life a mission. And if all day long there is nothing to do, you failed at school, you don’t have a job, it is very easy for figures like this sheik to approach these young men,” she said in a recent interview with The Washington Post.
Authorities were able to get away with their inability to act on the situation in Molenbeek until a group called Sharia4Belgium swept the town like a mob in 2010.
In March 2010, a 28-year-old Belgian man named Fouad Belkacem reached out to Anjem Choudary, the leader of a London-based Islamist advocacy group called Islam4UK. Belkacem wanted to start something of his own in Belgium and asked for advice. In the months that followed, Belkacem and his newly founded Sharia4Belgium started to make noise on the streets of Brussels and Antwerp, where Sharia4Belgium had its headquarters. The goal of the group was similar to what YMP attempted to do years earlier — convert Belgium into an Islamic republic. Belkacem urged his members to destroy historical Christian monuments and work against any unfaithful Muslims.
He taught a 24-month course in Islamist ideology, where the young students graduated as radicalized Muslims. On the weekends, the members posted up along the train line between Brussels and Antwerp, where they handed out flyers about their organization that contained encouragement to join their fight for an Islamic Belgium. Since freedom of speech is a right to which every Belgian citizen is entitled, the police could do nothing to prevent them from spreading propaganda, even if they, rather ironically, did so to gain support against democracy.
Belgium later issued a burqa and niqab (full face) veil ban in 2011. Violators are subject to fines of up to 137.50 EUR and between one and seven days in jail.
A police officer subsequently asked 25-year-old convert to Islam Stephanie Djato to remove her veil May 31, 2012 in Molenbeek. She refused and the officer, a woman, used force to remove it. Djato then head-butted the officer and was taken into custody, according to the official police report.
Djato was one of the wives of Belkacem, who later ended up in jail for making violent threats to specified persons.
Belkacem and Sharia4Belgium took to social media to inform the Molenbeek community about the incident. They claimed the police had used excessive force and made the arrest based on racial motives. Protests ensued later the same night on the streets of Molenbeek. Djato held a press conference the following day after her release from jail. She spoke about how she feared for her life, while Sharia4Belgium’s press secretary handed out his business card to journalists.
Clashes between police and protesters continued over the next six days, with two officers suffering stab wounds from members of Sharia4Belgium.
The riots were reported in national media and became a central topic in the parliament. It was later revealed that Sharia4Belgium had staged the arrest with the hopes of starting a war between Muslims and the community. By following the token of Bassam, Sharia4Belgium was attempting to further the “us against them” mentality in Molenbeek and recruit more teenagers to the network. With a local election coming up four months later, it was also a great opportunity to gain influence on politicians by illustrating a Muslim minority discriminated against by authorities.
Sharia4Belgium officially dissolved in October 2012, but at least 44 of its known members left Belgium over the following 18 months to go to Syria and fight for terror networks.
The same 44, along with Belkacem, later ended up in court for terrorist charges in October 2014. When Belgian authorities exposed Sharia4Belgium, the Molenbeek community was shocked to hear that a majority of the defendants were their neighbors.
The mother of one of the suspects raised her voice against Belkacem as he enter the court room.
“You’re a terrorist and responsible for my son and you’ll pay for it!” She shouted.
Belkacem responded with a smile as the woman was escorted out of the room for disturbing the peace.
All 44 members were sentenced to time in prison ranging between three and 15 years for taking part in terrorist activities. Belkacem got 12 years for being the organizer. The verdict came just weeks after the Charlie Hebdo shooting in Paris, which marked an important response from Belgian authorities, especially after it was revealed the guns had been obtained in Molenbeek.
Some celebrated the ruling as a victory in the fight against terrorism, and the public had clear evidence of the degree of Belgium’s radicalization problem. One politician went as far as to call immigration to Belgium a “Trojan horse” for ISIS.
Among the Sharia4Belgium members that were never captured are Abdelhamid Abaaoud and Salah Abdeslam, who grew up together in Molenbeek and became close friends while serving sentences at the same jail.
They continued the legacy of Sharia4Islam with the recent terror attacks in Paris.
Abaaoud was killed in a raid in Paris days after the attack. Abdeslam was captured Friday after hiding in Molenbeek for four months. Locals were well aware of Abdeslam’s whereabouts in the city and helped him stay at large for four months despite house-to-house raids.
It was revealed in November that the current mayor of Molenbeek, Françoise Schepmans, received a list of more than 80 terrorist suspects in her community weeks before the Paris attack. Abdeslam and Abaaoud were both on it.
Her response to why she never acted on the report is telling for how the jihadi community has been able to grow in Molenbeek.
“What was I supposed to do about them? It is not my job to track possible terrorists,” she said.
The other side of Molenbeek is rarely portrayed. A majority of the immigrant community condemns the actions of their neighbors, and hundreds of people met in the town’s main square to grieve the night of the Paris attacks.
For a long-term fix to take place, it starts with the political environment in Belgium, the locals argue.
“Nothing needs to change here,” Ahmed, who runs a clothing and home goods store in Molenbeek, said. “The problems are with the political environment of Belgium, with France, and right here in the city.”
This article was originally published Nov. 20, 2015.
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