Belgian prime minister Charles Michel has threatened to close “certain radical mosques” in the Molenbeek neighbourhood of Brussels that security services are increasingly viewing as a launch pad for the worst terror attack in French history.
But as masked officers swooped on the forlorn district on Monday, blocking off roads and rounding up suspects, many residents suggested that curing Molenbeek would not be so straightforward.
“It’s all on the internet, not in the mosques,” said Jamal Ikazban, a socialist lawmaker in the Brussels parliament, speaking over glasses of mint tea in a traditional north African café.
In agreement, another customer leant over the table to show the screen of his smartphone, which displayed a YouTube video on how to build bomb. “Who do you think is behind that?” he asked, stressing that recruitment by extremists had retreated into cyberspace.
Others said that the young men who went to fight in Syria and Iraq had almost never attended mosques.
Belgium has now been linked to a major terrorist attack five times in the past 18 months. And many of those links trace back to Molenbeek, a rundown former factory quarter that now houses a predominantly Muslim — and often transient — population.
“We don’t have things under control in Molenbeek,” Jan Jambon, Belgium’s home affairs minister, conceded on a television public affairs programme on Sunday. Mr Jambon has vowed to “clean up” a problem that many residents attribute, at least in part, to a long cycle of neglect.
Mr Ikazban said that under-investment in education and housing — just as the Muslim population was booming — had helped to create the economic and social weakness that created “fertile territory” for radicalisation in Molenbeek. He said that there were pockets of 50 per cent unemployment in the area, and families where parents and siblings had never worked.
“Religion is not the main access point [to radicalisation],” he said. “It is that they cannot see any future for themselves.”
Ahmed El Khannouss, a council alderman, observed that Molenbeek had long been a “transit zone”, with a big turnover in the working population, making it hard to keep tabs on who is passing through.
Within Belgium, much attention has focused on the previous mayor, Philippe Moureaux, a socialist who ran Molenbeek for two decades until 2012. Married into the Muslim community, Mr Moureaux has been forced to defend himself against accusations that he turned a blind eye to the growing problems of radicalisation.
“I have not been mayor for three years, and if things have not been done properly in the past few years, I had nothing to do with that,” he said on national television, rejecting charges of laxness.
Belgian officials, including Mr Jambon, have argued that their ability to keep the country safe has been undermined by the country’s highly fragmented administrative systems. Brussels alone, for example, has six policing zones, which can hinder the exchange of information. While local authorities are responsible for deradicalisation in places such as Molenbeek, federal authorities are responsible for law enforcement.
Mohammed, an elderly immigrant from Morocco, said his generation rarely understood what younger family members were viewing online. He thought that the Belgian police should take a harder line on gangs of teenage drug dealers, which he described as a common sight on the streets after dark. It was these young men, he argued, who would turn into the next jihadis.
Several locals observed that the most influential mosque in Molenbeek, Al Khalil, had gained a reputation for social conservatism, particularly in terms of family life, under the guidance of its prominent imam, Mohammed Tojgani. But they saw Belgium’s extreme jihadi problems — per capita, the country has sent the highest number of foreign fighters to Syria — as largely unconnected to the mainstream preachers.
Mr Ikazban insisted that there was a need for more community-based policing, by people who had a better nose for trouble on their turf. “Not people dressed like RoboCop, but people who pop round and ask how you are doing,” he said.
But Alexandre Laumonier, a writer on financial markets who moved to Molenbeek from France in 2007, said that these sort of neighbourhood support officers had achieved little under Mr Moureaux’s long reign as mayor. He had even observed them shaking hands and chatting with drug dealers, he said, rather than stopping them.
Mr Laumonier was drawn to a safe neighbourhood with a diverse population that included artists and intellectuals. But he complained that the society had become increasingly polarised between the Europeans and people of North African origin. After recently becoming a father, he is planning to move out.
“There is no mixing of the communities, and no real public spaces,” he said. “I went to see one crèche and only Arabic was spoken — no French — and I just had to say: no, that’s not for my son.”
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