City of terror

Brussels suburb a hotbed of radicals

Victims of the explosions at Zaventem airport in Brussels waiting for help after the attack yesterday.
Victims of the explosions at Zaventem airport in Brussels waiting for help after the attack yesterday. PHOTO: REUTERS

BRUSSELS • Apart from its famous chocolates and beers, Belgium is fast gaining notoriety as a breeding ground for European jihadists.

The search for the attackers in last November's Paris attacks has led the authorities across the Belgian border to an impoverished suburb in Brussels - Molenbeek.

According to police, the carnage of the Paris attacks was plotted here, and it was in these streets in Molenbeek that fugitive Salah Abdeslam hid out in an apartment after abandoning his mission, dumping his suicide belt in a Parisian street and calling his friends for help, after apparently driving his co-conspirators to their deaths, reported CNN.

Abdeslam, believed to be a direct participant in the Paris attacks that left 130 people dead and more than 350 wounded, was arrested last Friday.

His arrest has inevitably brought renewed focus on the threats posed by the terrorist networks in Belgium.

Statistics from the London-based International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence showed that Belgium, with a population of just 11 million, has the highest per capita number of foreign fighters in Syria among the Western European countries.

Experts say nearly 500 men and women have left Belgium for Syria and Iraq since 2012, reported CNN. At the same time, they say more than 100 Belgians have returned home from Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) territory, with many facing immediate arrest.

Despite Belgium's efforts to counter terrorism, ISIS recruiters are still able to ply their extremist trade in the country.

Many are from Molenbeek, which has since gained a reputation as a hotbed of radicals, with its long history of links to extremism.

A CNBC report quoted Mr Claude Moniquet, a former Belgian intelligence agent and co-founder of the European Strategic Intelligence and Security Centre, as saying that poverty and segregation are feeding extremism in the area.

Three of the eight terrorists involved in the attacks in Paris have strong links to Belgium.

Ringleader Abdelhamid Abaaoud was born in Belgium. Abdeslam's brother, Brahim, one of the suicide bombers who blew himself up outside a Paris cafe, owned a bar in Molenbeek, reported Reuters.

In January last year, police raided a suspected ISIS terror cell in Verviers, in the eastern part of Belgium, killing two men who were alleged to be on the brink of a major Paris- style attack.

After the raid, Molenbeek Mayor Francoise Schepmans told CNN that the suburb was aware of the problems it faced, with a cocktail of high unemployment among youth and terrorist propaganda.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 23, 2016, with the headline Brussels suburb a hotbed of radicals. Subscribe