Sunday

5th Feb 2023

Belgian police hunt Paris suspect in Brussels neighbourhood

  • Police did not find their suspect (Photo: Euobserver)

A half-dozen black-hooded Belgian police are standing in front of two ladders behind the Foundry park in Molenbeek, a neighbourhood in Brussels.

Amid drizzling rain they peer up onto the roof as police track down a man they believe may have been part of the Paris shootings on Friday. At the other end of the street, a hooded officer enters a pizzeria.

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One loud explosion is followed by another. No arrests are made.

A few streets away on Chaussee de Gand, shopkeepers and residents appear unaware of the drama unfolding nearby.

The operation had begun earlier in the day, just as Molenbeek mayor Francoise Schepmans was telling reporters that she’s shocked one of the Paris suicide bombers Brahim Abdeslam, a French national, had been a local who ran a cafe. The cafe was shut down earlier this month.

“This doesn’t at all correspond to this commune, which has some 100,000 inhabitants, with its diverse neighbourhoods, with a lot of cultural and social life,” she said on Monday (16 November).

Brahim’s brother Salah is now the object of a massive manhunt after some 129 people were shot dead in carefully staged attacks in Paris.

The other brother worked for the Brussels municipality and is described by deputy mayor Ahmed El Khannouss, who knows him, as friendly and kind.

“It was a family that lives in Molenbeek, they still live here. They never made any problems, it was a family that had a normal life,” said El Khannouss.

El Khannouss said no one had suspected any of the brothers had extremist tendencies.

“Nobody today could have imagined that a movement some 10,000 kilometres from here has the capacity to radicalise the youth, nobody was ready for that, in Belgium or any other place,” he said.

The Abdeslam family is composed of four brothers and one sister.

Schepmans says two of the brothers were known for making trouble.

Three lived in a flat just across from the city hall where Schepmans spoke.

Below, the corner cafe is shut. Nearby, vendors shuffle their wares onto the street baffled by the mass of journalists standing in the adjoining city hall square.

Schepmans said the municipality had stripped the three of housing benefits in 2013 because their monthly earnings were too high. One of them, she said, then kicked down the door of a municipal councilor in retaliation.

She says around 30 young people had left to fight alongside the Islamic militants in Syria, including those suspected but not confirmed of having left.

Molenbeek has the second largest concentration of young people, compared to any other municipality in Belgium.

It is also among the poorest, with an average unemployment rate of 35 percent among the Maghrebin, compared to the 21 percent average throughout the rest of Brussels, according to El Khannouss.

But one local, who did not want to give his name, and who does work with some of the mosques in the neighbourhood said the main problem isn’t poverty or lack of work.

“The problem are ideas, not the people,” he said.

He said Wahhabism, a conservative strand of Islam, has taken root and attracted a youth who before had no particular interest in religion.

Many of the mosques, he said, are being subsidised by Saudi Arabia.

Dave Sinardet, a Belgian political scientist, said that while Wahhabism is likely having an influence on some of the people living in the neighbourhood, the reasons behind the broader phenomenon are more complex and diverse.

“The thing I noticed is that a lot of people tend to project their own truths and their own convictions on what is happening,” he said.

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