22nd Nov 2019


Mechelen: the Belgian city with no foreign fighters

  • Mechelen was known as the sick man of Belgium 15 years ago, the mayor says. (Photo: Seb Ruiz)

Ever since Belgium-based terrorists were revealed to be behind the attacks in Paris, last November, and in Brussels, in March, killing a total of 162 people and injuring hundreds more, Belgium has been bashed for having the largest number of foreign fighters as a proportion of its population in the Western world.

According to the latest available figures, 451 people have left the kingdom for the self-styled Islamic State caliphate in Syria and Iraq.

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  • We are all the first generation of multicultural Mechelenians, says mayor Bart Somers. (Photo: Aleksandra Eriksson)

A closer look at the map of their hometowns shows that a baffling number seem to come from places located along the 50km train line between Brussels and Antwerp.

But recruiters came home empty-handed from the largest city along the rail route: Mechelen, a city of 84,000 inhabitants.

The world's carillon capital

Instead, Mechelen is famous for St Rumbold's cathedral, a world heritage site since 1999. Every so often, the Gothic belfry sends a chime on to the Grote Markt, a cobblestone market place lined with beer gardens.

"We are the carillon capital of the world", Bart Somers told EUobserver.

He has been the city's mayor since 2000, representing Flemish liberal party Open VLD.

"I'm touching wood, but nobody left our town so far," he said. "And I am sure that Mechelen would be in the top three cities sending people to Syria if we hadn't changed policies 15 years ago."

Somers recently presented a draft report on how to combat radicalisation and prevent violent extremism to the Committee of Regions, an assembly that represents EU regions and cities, of which he is a member. It will be voted on at the committee's plenary session in June.

His first recommendation: invest in police surveillance.

"Some parts of Belgium are lawless. People feel that the government has abandoned them. The law of the jungle prevails. In Mechelen there are enough police officers and surveillance cameras everywhere," he says.

"At one point I even took in the cavalry to patrol the town. But there were never soldiers on the street, not even when Brussels went into lockdown [last November after a terror alert]."

Above all, however, the mayor tracks the city's fortune to investment in social ties, a celebration of multiculturalism and the fight against discrimination.

Some 124 nationalities live in the city. More than half of the children aged under 12 are of foreign origin. This makes Mechelen one of Belgium's most international cities.

"My family has lived in Mechelen for 17 generations, ever since Andre Somers settled here in the 16th century," said mayor Somers.

"But let's face reality: today we all constitute the first generation of multicultural Mechelenians. As a mayor, I create opportunities for all of us to feel like full citizens of the city."

From children to citizens

The city puts a special effort into ensuring that all of its residents are included in social programmes from childhood. Minors account for 22 percent of Mechelen's population, making it one of Flanders' youngest cities. The city runs nine special centres providing after-school activities to vulnerable children.

Nordin Echahbouni (c) wants to be a role model for youngsters (Photo: Olle Sporrong/Expressen)

Nordin Echahbouni runs one of them.

"The kids that come here - their parents may well be working and they are often materially okay," he says.

"But they are socially poor, lacking links to the community and growing up without positive examples."

He singles out a boy called Mohammed who recently moved from Brussels. He could not concentrate in school and fell out with the teachers. Echahbouni helped negotiate.

Mohammed follows him around and does some tricks with a football. What he lacks in skill, he makes up with in jokes.

"Many young people don't have a positive idea of themselves. They don't know how to deal with frustrations," says Echahbouni.

"I want to be their role model. Make them strong and smart enough to take the right decisions in life. So they don't let anyone tell them that they can't be a part of this society."

'Fools in pyjamas'

Mayor Somers recalls that the jihadist organisation Sharia4Belgium came to town and tried to recruit in a local youth club.

"At that time, politicians didn't take them seriously: we thought of them as 'fools in pyjamas'," he says.

"The youngsters chased them away, and so they travelled on to Brussels."

Sharia4Belgium has since been outlawed and classified as a terrorist organisation by Belgian authorities. Most of its members are fighting with the Islamic State.

Rik Coolsaet, a Flemish academic, says Mechelen has been successful because it has been working against the exclusion of children for so long.

"They started worrying about these issues before most other cities, and long before the first Belgians started travelling to Syria in 2012," he says.

Bilal Benyaich, an Islamist terrorism expert who recently joined the Belgian foreign service, has previously highlighted the good organisation within Mechelen's Muslim community as a reason for the lack of radicalisation.

"Social cohesion is stronger than in other cities, thanks to established institutions.... reaching hundreds of young people," Benyaich told Belgian press last year.

"That makes it less easy for 'rogue elements' to derail. It may be just one of the factors, but it is a very important one."

Adding to the idea of social cohesion, mayor Somers stresses the work of individuals.

"Someone may not trust me, but he will listen to this boxing teacher, a former drug dealer that has the street credibility to tell youngsters that crime doesn't pay," he says.

"In Mechelen, even the Salafis preach that it's forbidden to kill," he says, referring to the fundamentalist group from the Sunni muslim obedience that is often seen as a gateway to violent radicalism.

However, not everything is rosy in Mechelen.

Three people are considered potential terrorists, according to police chief Yves Bogaerts.

Another 20 are "hands on" followed and 30 are regularly watched.

The police force itself is under investigation after it failed to pass on the address at which Paris terrorist Salah Abdeslam was caught in March.

Unemployment is twice as high for people of North African origin, and hits young people particularly hard.

The mayor is well aware that there is a lack of opportunities in his city.

"Many people don't accept the idea of a multicultural society. They speak of people with a foreign origin as 'migrants'," he says.

"I can't change it overnight. But I can be on their side and recognise that there is discrimination. It helps a lot to feel that politicians are standing on the right moral ground."

Other benefits

Belgium is a federal country and lacks a national framework for preventing radicalisation. The responsibility mostly falls upon cities, which have to draw up their own plans. Several have looked to Mechelen for inspiration.

Vilvoorde, a city with 27 confirmed foreign fighters, has introduced "a plan for warmth and safety", which has been credited for helping to stop departures. Nobody has left to fight since 2014, when the plan was launched.

But there is even more to gain from following Mechelen's example, the mayor argues.

"Fifteen years ago, Mechelen was known as the sick man of Belgium. Criminality was one of country's highest. The far-right Flemish Block was the city's biggest party," he says.

Now it's ranked by Financial Times as one of Europe's top-10 small cities of the future.

"It's a great city to live in," the mayor argues.

"We are a strong community. And now we are also uniting around the fact that we helped stop our loved ones leaving for Syria."


Bearded infidels in the EU capital

Salafism, the hardline creed invoked by IS, is causing tension among Belgium's Muslims. "We should have done more," to stop its spread, Belgian authorities admit.

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