Molenbeek mayor opens new front on extremism
This week’s knife attack on police in the Molenbeek district of Brussels once again drew attention to a place that has been labelled a jihadist hotspot.
A 20-year old man, reportedly Algerian, stabbed two police officers on Wednesday (7 September) before fleeing the scene. He was later caught.
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Locals say it had nothing to do with Islamic radicalism.
But for her part, Molenbeek’s mayor, Francoise Schepmans, says that radicalisation thrives on other forms of criminality and that one way to tackle terrorism is to first target lower offences.
In the tense atmosphere after the March attack in the EU capital, and other attacks in France and Germany, Belgian media quickly reported that the knife attacker had turned toward Islamic extremism.
Molenbeek already became infamous after it emerged that suspects in the Brussels terrorist attack and in the Paris attack of last November had sheltered there.
Salah Abdeslam, a key Paris suspect, is a Belgian of Moroccan origin who was arrested in Molenbeek in March after having hid there for four months.
His brother, Ibrahim, who also came from Molenbeek, blew himself up in the French capital. Mohamed Abrini, the childhood friend of both brothers, was later involved in the Brussels bombings.
Abdelhamid Abaaoud, who lived near to Molenbeek's main police station, also took part in the Paris assault.
More broadly, around 47 residents out of the 100,000 people who live in Molenbeek have gone to fight in Syria with extremist groups such as Islamic State (IS).
Pieter Van Ostaeyen, who researches Belgian jihadists, in early August estimated that 543 Belgians had left in total, of whom 127 had returned to Belgium.
Crime and radicalisation
Local residents deny that this week’s Molenbeek knife attack had any connection to terrorism.
"According to our information, there was no direct link to radicalisation or terrorism," Mustafa Er, a spokesman for the Molenbeek local authority, told this website on Friday (9 September).
Er said the knife attacker was an illegal immigrant who had been ordered to leave Belgium several times.
"The last one [order] dated from August. Unfortunately, that order was not applied," Er said.
Whatever the attacker’s motive might have been, the Molenbeek mayor, who has undertaken the overwhelming task of trying to ensure that her area never again becomes home to terrorists, believes that ordinary crime can be a precursor of radicalisation.
Speaking to EUobserver on Tuesday, Schepmans noted that the Abdeslam group were petty criminals before they were recruited by IS.
"We could not imagine that in 2012, in 2013, that these individuals, who were petty criminals, who were delinquents, would transform into violent radicals," she said in the sidelines of an event organised by the European Institute of Peace, a Brussels-based foundation.
The mayor is currently rolling out a new strategy to crack down on delinquency.
In February, she received some 50 additional police officers specifically tasked to go after drug peddlers, car thieves, and other more-or-less minor offenders.
Crime figures in the neighbourhood had dropped by almost 12 percent between 2009 and 2014.
The first six months of 2016 saw a three-fold increase compared to last year, but authorities said the higher number of arrests was due to greater police numbers and more foot patrols.
Schepmans indicated that Molenbeek’s fractured community was also part of the problem, however.
Asked how Abdeslam had managed to evade arrest for four months, the mayor said that his friends, who hid him, had such a narrow world view that they did not even see him as a terrorist.
"If this delinquent benefited from being hidden, it is simply because the community of Moroccan origin, certain persons from the community thought it was needed to hide the friend, the brother, and not at all a terrorist or a radical," she said.
The European Institute of Peace recently carried out a two-month study in Molenbeek.
Researchers conducted 406 interviews with randomly selected residents. The full report is not yet public, but on Tuesday it produced a summary of findings.
They found, among other things, that Molenbeek residents who have a north African heritage have few contacts with other minorities in the district.
They also found sharp divisions even within the Moroccan community.
They noted, for instance, that some, like those that can trace their origins to the Rif, a mountainous region in North Morocco, speak only Berber while others speak Arabic.