Belgian police and military personnel have descended on Molenbeek, a suburb of Brussels on the day when explosions ripped through the capital’s international airport and metro rail system, killing at least 31 persons and wounding 200. Among the injured are nine Americans. Two Americans appear to be missing.
Molenbeek has long been a breeding ground for Islamic terrorist activities. For example, Salah Abdeslam – who is suspected of involvement in the 2015 Paris attacks – was arrested there on March 18, just doors away from his parents’ residence. At least half of the terrorists who killed 130 people in Paris last year are believed to be from Belgium or France.
One of the terrorists involved in the Paris attack was from Molenbeek: Brahim Abdeslam, the brother of Salah Abdeslam, was the part owner of a bar in the suburb. He killed himself outside a Paris café when he detonated an explosive vest.
(Molenbeek police station under army guard)
Security forces have zeroed in on Molenbeek, where several people were detained in a series of raids since the ISIS-linked attacks. Belgium has a population of 11 million people, and has the highest number per capita of Muslim militants fighting in Syria and Iraq, according to experts. Many of these are from Molenbeek. Some experts theorize that poverty and segregation feed Muslim extremism in Molenbeek, where there are areas that range from 80 to 90 percent Muslim.
"We are breeding a generation of kids who are estranged from their own societies," U.K.-based expert on radicalization Bill Durodie said. "They are caught between no cultures," he said. "The West is not very good about promoting its own culture and as a result some young people looking for an identity, or somewhere to belong, fall into extremism.”
Molenbeek has 90,000 residents, of whom 40 percent are unemployed.
(Al Khalil mosque, Molenbeek, Belgium)
Terrorism expert Claude Moniquet said of European politicians, "They completely let the bad guys do absolutely what they wanted." He added, "They have been too nice, too tolerant, too bland. They didn't want to see radical Islamism in this part of the country because the only thing interesting for them is peace [and quiet] and to be reelected." As early as 2012, Moniquet had warned that Islamic terrorism is the greatest threat faced by Europe. Molenbeek Mayor Francoise Schepmans said there is a small number of radicalized Mulisms, but denied it is a problem.
A member of the ruling liberal MR party, Schepmans said in November 2015 that she had received a list with names and addresses of more than 80 suspected Muslim militants living in Molenbeek. Two of them were the brothers involved in the Paris attacks, a month before it took place.
Not my job
“What was I supposed to do about them?” Schepmans told The New York Times. “It is not my job to track down possible terrorists.” This is “the responsibility of the federal police,” she said. “They do not all come from here, and most of the time, they are just travelling through,” she claimed. “In some districts, the population is very dense, with 80 percent of the people of north African origin. Anonymity is easier for people passing through with very bad intentions,” she said. “They also land in districts which are breeding grounds for radicalization.” In an apparent criticism of the Socialist who preceded her in the mayor's office, Schepmans said “One should have been firmer from the start.”
Links to terror
Molenbeek has been linked to other acts of terror. For example, one former resident was the Moroccan, Ayoub El-Khazzani, who opened fire last year on a high-speed train bound for Paris. A French Muslim, Mehdi Nemmouche — who is believed to have fought in Syria — is facing justice for shooting to death four people outside a museum in Brussels in 2014. Mohammed Abrini, who grew up in Molenbeek, is wanted for the Paris attack. And the terrorists who carried out the deadly 2004 attack in Madrid, which effectively threw an election to the Socialists, were also traced to Molenbeek.
(Belgian troops on patrol in Molenbeek)
Molenbeek provides a grim lesson of what is happening in other parts of Europe, according to Adam Deen, a former British Muslim radical who is now the research head of the Quilliam Foundation -- a British anti-extremist organization – who said that especially young Muslims are increasingly being offered Wahhabi Islam, which is a narrow interpretation of the religion that originated in Saudi Arabia. This form of Islam, said Deen, creates a sense of alienation among its adherents from the place of their birth and where they were raised. "Now what happens is that any Muslim who wants to be active within the Muslim community, the default position is Wahhabism or a varied form of it." He added, that Wahhabi Islam inculcates a binary view of the world in which non-Muslims are viewed as non-human, thus making it “quite easy to put a bomb in a public place." In much of Europe, he said, no “counter-narrative” to Wahhabi Islam is being offered.
Currently, Western security agencies believe that there were at least 1,200 Frenchmen fighting for ISIS in Syria and Iraq at the end of 2014. More are believed to be there now. A study by the International Center for the Study of Radicalization and Political Violence reported that Belgium sent some 440: the highest per capita of any European nation. Germany and the U.K. both sent more than 500.
BuzzFeed cited a Belgian counter-terrorism official earlier this month, who said that "virtually every police detective and military intelligence officer” in Belgium is focused on Islamic terrorism. "We just don't have the people to watch anything else and, frankly, we don't have the infrastructure to properly investigate or monitor hundreds of individuals suspected of terror links, as well as pursue the hundreds of open files and investigations we have," the official said.
There is concern that known terrorists are getting through security controls in Europe, while Islamists under surveillance are able to carry out attacks even though their members are being pursued. French President François Hollande said last week that Muslim terrorists are “more numerous than we had thought.”
For example, Abdelhamid Abaaoud was a ringleader of the November 2015 attacks in Paris. He was quickly identified in the aftermath, having been a known threat. He had already been involved in an attack on a Paris-bound train in August 2015 and an April 2015 plot on a church outside of Paris. In addition, in January 2015, police killed two members of Abaaoud's terror cell during a raid on their safe house in Verviers, a city near Liege in Belgium.
European authorities knew who Abaaoud was, because he had not kept a low profile: he was featured in a February 2015 issue of the Islamic State's Dabiq magazine. In an interview, the magazine described him as a “mujahid being pursued by Western Intelligence agencies for his jihad in Belgium." In the interview, Abaaoud said he was accompanied by two accomplices who traveled within Europe “to terrorize the crusaders waging war against the Muslims." He taunted European officials for being unable to stop him.
No police raids after dark, please
Molenbeek may continue to be the focus of attention on the part of European security. Speaking about the suburb, Politico reporter Tara Palmeri told Inside Edition, “It's a hotbed of radicalism and it seems to be all coming from this neighborhood. Even the men who were involved with the planning of the Paris attack.” Of the four-month-long manhunt for Salah Abdeslam -- who was a leader in the deadly Paris attack -- Palmieri said of the largely Muslim neighborhood, “The others were helping him hide 400 meters from his parent's home.” It was there in Molenbeek that he was arrested in a firefight on March 18.
Europe plays by different rules than the U.S. when it comes to terrorism. When police thought they had located Abdeslam weeks ago in Molenbeek, that could not close in because Belgian law does not permit raids at night. Abdeslam simply slipped away in the dark. “They're not allowed to conduct a raid after 5 p.m. They have privacy laws that are different than in the United States,” Palmeri said.
Alex Marquardt, an ABC News correspondent told Inside Edition, “There are believed to be 5,000 Europeans fighting for ISIS and around 1,000 of them from Belgium and many of them from this neighborhood, Molenbeek.”
Security experts point out that the ideology of Islamic terror is not part of the global conversation on terrorism. For example, veterans such as Adm. James Stavridis, a former NATO chief, indicate their frustration that the ideological and religious roots of Islamic terror are not being addressed by policy makers. Stavridis said in an interview with Fox News that he looks forward to new leadership in the White House, which he said is now sorely lacking in the fight against Islamic terrorism.
Spero News editor Martin Barillas is a former US diplomat, who also worked as a democracy advocate and election observer in Latin America. His first novel 'Shaken Earth', is available at Amazon.