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Heavily armed special forces stand guard outside a house being searched in the Rue Delaunoy in Brussels on November 16, 2015. (DIRK WAEM/AFP/Getty Images)
Heavily armed special forces stand guard outside a house being searched in the Rue Delaunoy in Brussels on November 16, 2015. (DIRK WAEM/AFP/Getty Images)

Paris attacks

Police raids in Molenbeek highlight darker side of Brussels Add to ...

The investigation into the attacks on the glittering heart of Paris arrived Monday in a gritty appendage of Brussels, as heavily armed police sealed off several blocks of the district of Molenbeek, the last known address of several alleged key plotters of last week’s carnage.

After a prolonged siege that saw several blocks of the area cordoned off for hours – and more than a few erroneous media reports – Belgian police said they had not captured 26-year-old Salah Abdeslam, the suspected “eighth attacker” who is believed to be in Belgium but remains at large following the Paris attacks that left 129 people dead and more than 350 wounded. Mr. Abdeslam’s older brother, Ibrahim, has been identified as a suicide bomber who blew himself up on Paris’s Boulevard Voltaire after taking part in the massacre at the Bataclan concert hall.

The area was home not only to the Abdeslam brothers (a third brother, Mohammed, was among seven people taken into custody by Belgian police on Saturday, but released without charge on Monday) but also Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the man named by French intelligence officials on Monday as the suspected mastermind of the Paris plot. The 27-year-old Mr. Abaaoud is believed to now reside in an Islamic State-controlled part of eastern Syria, where he is something of a celebrity extremist, having given interviews to jihadi magazines about Islamic State-inspired attacks around the world.

Monday’s police raids on the brothers’ home neighbourhood of Molenbeek threw the spotlight on a dark side of the Belgian capital that gets scant mention in tourist guides but is just 20 minutes’ walk from the famed attractions of the Grand Place and the Manneken Pis. Separated from the city centre by a narrow canal, Molenbeek is much farther away in terms of culture and opportunity.

The area is also believed to be the Western world’s biggest per-capita producer of fighters for the so-called Islamic State that claimed responsibility for Friday’s attacks. Between 350 and 550 Belgians – from a total population of 11 million, and less than half a million Muslims – are believed to have travelled to Syria and Iraq to fight alongside IS.

While central Brussels is a warren of designer brew pubs and expensive chocolateries, Molenbeek – home to 90,000 people – is a place of shawarma stalls and social housing, a Middle Eastern neighbourhood in the capital of Europe. Shop signs here are written in Arabic as well as French, and mainstream attire is beards for men, headscarves and abayas for women.

It’s also a place where the education system is poor, jobs are scarce and the Belgian police seem somewhat frightened of the population they’re supposed to protect.

Although residents dispute its reputation as the “jihadi capital of Europe,” Molenbeek Mayor Françoise Schepmans referred to the area as “a breeding ground for violence” after the revelations about its connections to the Paris attacks. In the wake of January’s attacks on the Charlie Hebdo satirical newspaper and a Jewish deli in the French capital, police in Molenbeek surrounded their station with barbed wire and began frisking those who wished to enter.

Police say that the Kalashnikov assault rifles used in Friday’s massacres in Paris, like those used in the Charlie Hebdo attacks, were purchased in Belgium. A social worker who works with at-risk youth in Molenbeek said guns were “quite easy” to obtain here, and that he had seen transactions take place in the street.

Still, residents of Molenbeek say they were shocked to see their neighbourhood connected to Friday’s attacks in Paris, lining up to tell a reporter that the area shouldn’t be defined by the actions of a radical few.

“I’ve lived here all my life. It’s shocking to me to see in the media how Molenbeek is described as a centre of jihadism,” said Ahmed, a 45-year-old local resident who stood at the edge of police lines on Monday. He was worried about his sister: She was stuck for several hours inside an area cordoned off by police, who ordered residents not to leave their homes. “I have sisters who wear the veil and sisters who don’t. Everyone makes their own choices and there are no problems.”

But asked to describe life in Molenbeek, Ahmed – who declined to give his family name – painted a grimmer picture. “This is a poor area, there is a lot of unemployment,” he said, adding that he had lost his own job several months before. “But it’s not like because you have no work that you go and kill people. These were sick youth. Maybe there are some gurus who came and messed with their heads. Hopefully they will clean up this problem and the neighbourhood will recover.”

Bruno Bauwens, who has worked as a social worker in Molenbeek for two decades, says the district’s problems run deep and have festered due to inattention. The extremist messages of organizations like Islamic State and al-Qaeda find resonance here because of an education system that badly lags behind the rest of Belgium, and a lack of job opportunities for those who do persist and graduate.

The area has 30-per-cent unemployment, a figure believed to be much higher among those under the age of 30.

“When you live in Molenbeek, you see these things and you get hopeless. And when you’re hopeless, bad things can happen,” Mr. Bauwens said.

Gang violence is common and recruitment for extremist organizations often takes place in plain sight.

“Police knew the cafés where people are being recruited, they knew the suspicious websites, they know the one mosque that’s a problem,” said Mr. Bauwens, declining to name the cafés and mosque he was referring to. “But only after something like this they say, ‘We must clean up Molenbeek.’”

Belgium’s decentralized style of government, which extends to its police and intelligence services, appear to have helped the Paris plotters evade detection. Residents say the local and national police forces frequently bicker over whose responsibility it is to monitor suspected extremists in Molenbeek.

And there were those who definitely had at least reason to suspect that something was afoot. Faklan Abdeslam, the mother of two of the Paris attackers, said she was surprised that her younger son Salah was involved in the massacre. Less so her older son Ibrahim.

“We were really surprised that Salah was involved. Ibrahim was different,” she told the Het Laatste Nieuws website. “We did see that he had been radicalized.”

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