Hornet's nest at center of Brussels terror threat

Story highlights

  • Delphine Schrank says Belgian authorities have long tolerated the climate of a Brussels neighborhood as a center of jihadist terrorism
  • Terror threat thrives against background of high unemployment, dysfunctional security services, weak politicians, she says

Delphine Schrank, who has been reporting from Belgium, is the author of "The Rebel of Rangoon: A Tale of Defiance and Deliverance in Burma"; a contributing editor to the Virginia Quarterly Review; and a co-founding member of Deca Stories, a writers' cooperative for global journalism. She is a former staff writer and editor at The Washington Post. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.

(CNN)First Belgian security forces found his fingerprints in an apartment on the outskirts of Brussels, alongside an explosive device and a flag of ISIS.

Three days later, ending a four-month manhunt, police tracked the most wanted man in Europe, the last at-large suspected perpetrator of the November terrorist attacks in Paris, to a residential block in Molenbeek, the Brussels slum where he grew up.
    Delphine Schrank
    No official has yet gone on record proving a conclusive link between the high-profile arrest on Friday of Salah Abdeslam and the near-simultaneous attacks that ripped through Brussels Airport and a central subway station Tuesday, killing dozens of people and wounding hundreds. Security forces and intelligence officials are still gathering clues about whether the explosions were retaliation for his capture, or part of a premeditated plot that he might have helped design.
    But as the fog clears, watch for intense scrutiny and handwringing about how Abdelsalem's refuge of Molenbeek has maintained its dubious and by now longstanding claim to hosting the most terrorists per capita of any other region in Western Europe.

    A long history

    In the days that followed the November 13 attacks in Paris, local politicians and journalists traded explanations and blame for the many sins that might have allowed the slum to degenerate into a hornet's nest of jihadists.
    To trackers of terrorism, as to the Belgian political classes, it was little secret that Molenbeek had long been a back base or transit center for attackers in a grim catalog that included the assassination of Afghanistan's Ahmad Shah Massoud in 2001, the bombings in Madrid in 2004, the shooting in Brussels' Jewish Museum in 2014, and a foiled plot to massacre passengers in August on the Thalys Paris-bound train.
    Despite repeat raids in Molenbeek since November 13, and so many visits from journalists that local publications began listing it without irony among the country's top tourist hotspots, the chief surprise of recent days was that Salah Abdeslam had been hiding there, almost in plain sight.
    Whether he relied on a complicit network of supporters remains to be uncovered. At the very least, his return to his childhood neighborhood, just a stone's throw from his mother's residence, highlights the reality that the murderous culture in Molenbeek resists quick solutions -- or government control.
    But the commune's decline, alongside the advance of a claustrophobic and ghetto-like mentality of hidebound Islamic conservatism, was anything but inevitable. Unlike Paris' banlieues or the slums of a city like Chicago, Molenbeek doesn't sit in isolation on the far outskirts of the Belgian capital.
    Only a few minutes' drive from the historic center of Brussels and the well-heeled boulevards around the European Union headquarters, the district is densely populated with mostly North African immigrants, their children and grandchildren. Their diversity reflects not just the troubled legacy of European colonial rule but, conversely, the evolving demographics of a multiethnic, multilingual kingdom that was carved on the map from scratch in 1831 and that maintains a stable, if uneasy, equilibrium between its Dutch- and French-speaking populations. Molenbeek's handsome town hall, built in 1889, recalls the district's rich manufacturing origins during the Industrial Revolution, earning it the nickname "little Manchester."

    Dysfunctional security services

    So what happened?
    Belgium is thought to be the greatest European exporter of fighters for ISIS, with 117 returnees at last count.
    Faced with that challenge, or that of homegrown would-be jihadists, Belgium is afflicted with uniquely complex, and uniquely dysfunctional, security services. The minister of the interior, Jan Jambon, spoke three days before the Paris attacks last November about the difficulties, explaining to journalists that efficiency is tough with six police departments for the city alone, and 19 municipalities with 19 mayors.
    Likewise, arcane laws -- including one that prevents raiding private homes between 9 p.m. and 5 a.m., which might have blocked a much earlier capture of Abdeslam in Molenbeek -- have added to the storm of criticism that authorities faced.
    Those obstacles ran up against the simultaneous recognition that a terrorist attack was "imminent and urgent," which led them to put Brussels under an unprecedented four-day lockdown in November, after the Paris attacks.
    But many have likewise pointed the finger at the segregated mentality and apologist culture that developed under Philippe Moureaux, who earned the epithet of "the sheikh of Molenbeek" for the patronage he offered his Moroccan-descended and his broader Muslim electorate during a two-decade tenure as the district's mayor.
    Critics have widely lambasted him, arguing that he turned a blind eye to, or even encouraged, the appeal of Islamic radicalism, by tolerating strict Wahhabi or Quranic schooling and rallies that turned anti-Semitic, in return for votes. (Moureaux recently published a book "La Verite Sur Molenbeek" (The Truth on Molenbeek) defending his record.)

    Giving up on Molenbeek

    In 10 years, the population of Molenbeek grew by 25%. Today, the area is overcrowded and unemployment is high, estimated by some reports at 30%.
    "That the center of Molenbeek becomes a little Marrakech, why not?" Francoise Schepmans, a Liberal Party politician, now Molenbeek's mayor, said back in 2009 in response to Moureaux's description of the area as an "oriental quarter." "The problem is that it's transforming itself into Peshawar."
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    The cultural anthropologist Teun Voeten gave up on Molenbeek after living there for nine years. Fresh back from trips to Syria, Libya, and other restive countries in the Middle East, the final straw for him, he said in an interview, was a lengthy conversation in 2014 with bearded men outside his home one night who tried converting him to strict Islam. He has since written about a "culture of denial that pervades the debate about Islam in this country," by which he means a willingness among the country's chattering classes to excuse the growing evidence of violence and criminality in the neighborhood as the result of social and economic exclusion. There were opportunities for its inhabitants, he said. But those excuses allowed for a culture of victimization.

    Varieties of Islam

    Today, young men and women face pressure to conform to a hidebound view of Islamist culture that locals say is more conservative than their parents' or grandparents' Morocco. There are no women in Molenbeek's teashops. Hostility greets any female who would dare to walk its streets at night in a short skirt. Rumors swirl too -- about the transactions of arms in his hair salons, or drugs available in its subway stations.
    But it's also a myth that the individuals who gravitated to radicalism or to join ISIS in Syria were religious zealots who knew their Quran through and through. The literary Arabic of the Saudi-funded local mosques -- another popular subject of national self-recrimination -- is incomprehensible to the rising generations from which the recent attackers hail. So is the Berber dialect they hear from their grandparents in their cramped Molenbeek apartments and homes.
    The appeal of jihadism has been roundly excoriated as little more than a set of empty cliches that preys on losers, or youth caught between cultures and languages, in a Belgian satirical play called "Djihad." Written and performed by three Belgian actors of North African descent, the play opened in December 2014. It quickly became a sensation, embraced by wide audiences and the Belgian political community as a teaching tool to convince Belgian youth of the perils of radicalism and its false promises.
    Ben Hamidou, one of its three performers, is a classically trained actor and a Molenbeek native. A staunch defender of the district's promise and possibilities, he is also quick to lambaste its dangerous closed-mindedness. When the time came to place his children in Molenbeek's schools, he was shocked at the segregation and decided that was no education at all.
    Under slate gray skies last December, we met in a cafe off the cobbled main square of Molenbeek, just across from a police station. He said: "Yes, we're in a cultural ghetto. So, the ghetto, it has some good traits. ... It makes you feel good, it protects you, it's like a mother. It's warm. You know your bearings. It's great. ... But ... little by little it prevents you from expressing yourself. It kills you. It's omnipresent. It's omnipotent. It follows you. It tells you what you must do and it says just one thing: you can't leave me or else you betray me."