Brussels attack: Why young Belgian Muslims are easy prey for extremists

In the months before the Brussels attacks, many people in the insular, depressed Brussels neighbourhood of Molenbeek must have known where Salah Abdeslam was hiding.

Abdeslam was the only surviving perpetrator of the terrorist attacks in Paris on November 15 last  year. According to the Paris prosecutor, he was originally supposed to detonate a suicide bomb at the Stade de France, a soccer stadium in Paris, but lost his nerve. On that day in Paris, 130 people died.

After French police linked him to the attacks, Abdeslam became one of the most wanted men in Europe, and the focus of an intense manhunt that lasted for over 100 days. Dozens of houses were searched.

But for those in Molenbeek who had the scraps of information that Belgian authorities were looking for, loyalty — or fear — were more powerful forces than anything the state could offer them. In the end, Abdeslam was arrested, last Friday, because he used a phone that police had linked to him. It was 126 days after the Paris attacks.

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Abdeslam seems to have gone underground in Molenbeek, protected by those who knew who he was. In the end he wasn’t betrayed by a person, but by a moment of carelessness.

Molenbeek is a historically working-class Brussels neighbourhood connected with factories and a nearby canal. In the 1960s, the Belgian government encouraged Moroccans to come to Belgium to address a labour shortage — tens of thousands settled in Molenbeek. The labour shortage didn’t last, but the Moroccan community did — saddled with high levels of unemployment and separated from mainstream Belgian society.

As the years went by, it festered.

Two Belgian journalists who have spent time living in Molenbeek describe a closed community that has turned in on itself, finding meaning only in the bright, intoxicating certainties of radical Islam. Young men with no obvious future slide from petty crime into a new life as radicalized Muslims.

The Guardian recently interviewed the grieving Belgian-Moroccan parents of a 19-year-old who had grown up in Molenbeek. After leaving school, he slid into aimless unemployment, and then into a severe form of Islam.

“I thought it would give him a direction,” his mother said. It did, but not the one his parents would have wanted — he was killed fighting for the Islamic State group in Syria. His parents found out by text message.

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READ MORE: Dozens killed in attacks on Brussels airport, subway

One recent estimate put the number of Belgian citizens fighting for ISIS in the Middle East at over 500. Per capita, more Belgians have joined ISIS than citizens of any other European country.

The Islamic State group claimed responsibility for the Brussels attacks, the Associated Press reported today, saying in a posting on the group’s Amaq news agency that its extremists opened fire in the airport and “several of them” detonated suicide belts. It said another suicide attacker struck in the subway.

The posting claimed the attack was in response to Belgium’s support of the international coalition arrayed against the group.

READ MORE: Islamic State claims responsibility for deadly Brussels attack

Links to terrorism in the neighbourhood have deep roots: a ringleader of the 2004 Madrid train bombings was from Molenbeek. The Paris attacks were at least partly planned in Belgium.

(It doesn’t help that Belgium’s counterterrorism efforts have been divided and catastrophically dysfunctional.)

“Please understand that if lots of young people have left for Syria, it’s above all because no one’s ever paid them any attention, until these fanatics gave them the impression that at last they were going to truly exist,” a local man told Le Monde.

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Hind Frahi, a Belgian journalist, spent two months living in Molenbeek in 2005, and turned her experiences into a book. She described a generation of young men reduced to listless petty crime and an angry version of Islam in which purse-snatching from infidels was defined as jihad.

“These young people don’t have a job or a future, so they are very easy to indoctrinate if you give them a big story,” she told the Washington Post. “A big collective story, a story of our society, a dream, an aspiration, an idealism.”

They were buying, and a local sheik, Bassam Ayashi, was selling. Ayashi is now believed to be in Syria.

“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,” Frahi said.

Teun Voeten, a cultural anthropologist and war photographer, moved to the neighbourhood in 2005 because it was affordable and stayed there for ten years.

Molenbeek “is home to a very deep, and very dangerous, undercurrent of radical Islamism,” he wrote.

Over the decade, the area became dominated by a harsh form of Islam. Alcohol vanished, women were pressured to wear the veil, and mainstream newspapers became hard to buy. The local Jewish community found life impossible, and fled. So did residents who were openly gay.

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After a confrontation on his own street with a Salafist fanatic who tried to convert him, Voeten decided he “could no longer stand to live in this despondent, destitute, fatalistic neighborhood.”

Last November, Voeten found himself in Paris working as a photographer, shooting the bloody, chaotic aftermath of the terrorist attacks there.

“When it became clear the attacks were planned in Molenbeek, I was not surprised,” he later wrote. “The real surprise? That Belgium expressed shock at the connection.”