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15th Apr 2024

Molenbeek locals counter 'terrorist image' with vigil

  • Molenbeek neighbourhood in Brussels was home to one of the suicide bombers in the Paris attacks (Photo: Erasmushogeschool Brussel)

Residents of the impoverished Brussels neighbourhood of Molenbeek are trying to give a more nuanced image than the one put about by some media and politicians in the past few days.

Locals and others from around Brussels are holding a silent candle vigil at the town square on Wednesday (18 November). The vigil is to commemorate the Paris attacks but also, in part, to resist the backlash of widespread negative views of the neighbourhood.

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“We are not going to speak, we are asking everyone to be silent and just to come to the city hall square and to light a candle”, Greet Simons, who organises the vigil, told this website on Tuesday (17 November).

According to social media invites, over 2,000 will be attending, with another larger demonstration planned for Brussels city centre on Sunday.

Simons, who runs a local Flemish cultural centre in the neighbourhood, said people in Molenbeek are afraid of the repercussions as police step up patrols and checks.

“We have a history of police violence in Molenbeek against young people, and of course everyone is afraid that it will be increased”, she said.

The city police are broken up into six different units, which do not always communicate with one another. The fragmented force and various administrative layers of government within the city are among the issues the federal government intends to improve.

Meanwhile, Belgian police descended en masse on Monday in their efforts to capture Salah Abdeslam, one of the suspects behind the Paris shootings on Friday that killed 129 people. They did not find him.

His brother Brahim was one of the killers.

The two French nationals had lived in the neighbourhood but showed no signs of having been radicalised in the lead-up to the shootings, according to some locals. Brahim had run a café that was shut down earlier this month because of petty crimes like drug dealing. Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the presumed Belgian mastermind behind the attacks, is also from Molenbeek.

The predominately Moroccan neighbourhood has also been linked to other disasters.

Weapons used in the Charlie Hebdo attacks earlier this year by Amedy Coulibaly are thought to have been purchased there. Mehdi Nemmouche, who opened fired at the Brussels’ Jewish museum last year, may also have bought his weapons there. The thwarted Thalys attacker Ayoub el-Khazzani had also been staying in the neighbourhood.

Over the weekend, Belgian interior minister Jan Jambon vowed “to clean up Molenbeek”.

And earlier this week, Molenbeek’s mayor Françoise Schepmans told this website that poverty in her district is due in part to the high concentration of youth with few prospects for employment. She noted around 30 young residents had left to fight in Syria.

For the some 80,000 people who live there, the neighbourhood offers an entirely other perspective.

But Simons described Molenbeek as a neighbourhood in transition, secure, and one that attracts artists.

“Now there is a whole artistic movement going on here”, she said, noting for example La Vallee.

Weapons in Molenbeek

Youssef Handichi, a regional parliament MP for Brussels, said that “the whole world perceives Molenbeek as a terrorist breeding ground where everything is going bad”.

He said the community has been neglected by politicians and ministers like Jan Jambon.

“What we have asked him [Jambon] for a long time is to invest in our youth, to invest in Molenbeek, to finance a social policy that is coherent”, he said.

He said the weapons used in Paris attacks are not like the ones typically circulating in Molenbeek. Instead, he believes Daesh, the Arabic name of the Islamic State, provided them.

He noted Belgium, along with other countries like France, Germany, and the UK, are supplying weapons to Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

The Saudi kingdom, for its part, is said to be financing ultra-orthodox Wahhabi mosques in Molenbeek.

“The links are there. Qatar and Saudi Arabia are sending those weapons to Daesh. At one point or another a choice needs to be made: should that business continue, or do we end it now?”

A 2009 Wikileaks cable penned by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said "donors in Saudi Arabia constitute the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide."

Saudi Arabia purchased some $90 billion of weapons from the US between 2010 and 2015. On Monday, the US state department approved a $1.29 billion sale of smart bombs to the kingdom.

Amnesty International, for its part, in a report earlier last month said the weapons are being used to terrorise Yemen.

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