BRUSSELS: Brussels’ Molenbeek area, long infamous in Belgium’s capital city for its crime and unemployment, has emerged once again as a European hotbed of Islamist extremism where residents say they live in fear.
Residents of the largely Muslim area said they were caught in the middle of a war as police blocked off a main street on Monday in the latest of many raids since it emerged at least one of the Paris attackers had lived there.
“We are between two fires, the fire of white people and the fire of the Islamist extremists,” Abderrahman, 55, told AFP as he stood opposite a police barrier.
He said he was worried on the one hand that his sons could become the victim of a wave of Islamist attacks like those that killed at least 129 people in Paris on Friday — and on the other that his mosque on a nearby street could be attacked by vengeful Belgian right-wing extremists.
Residents also say many parents worry about their sons leaving to fight with Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, where a lack of economic opportunities for ethnic minority youths has created widespread disaffection.
A community of around 95,000 people from nearly 100 nationalities that lies just a few metro stops from the gleaming headquarters of the European Union, Molenbeek has long been a breeding ground for radicalism.
In 2001, it was in Molenbeek where the assassins of Afghanistan’s anti-Taliban commander Ahmad Shah Massoud had stayed.
It was also home to one of the 2004 Madrid train bombers and the main suspect in the 2014 Jewish Museum attack in Brussels, while the perpetrator of a foiled attack in August on an Amsterdam-Paris train stayed in Molenbeek with his sister before boarding in Brussels.
Mohammed, a 41-year-old electrician from Molenbeek, blamed the Belgian government which he said is “too lax” in tackling the problem.
He recalled how a friend’s son was lured by Islamist extremists and then tried to enter Syria from Turkey before being captured by Kurdish guerrillas.
“My friend was crying. I never educated my son to do that,” he quoted his friend as saying. “My son got tricked by a bunch of guys over a period of six months. These are former thieves, drug dealers and prisoners.”
But the problem is not new.
Analyst Claude Moniquet said that Molenbeek had for two decades played host to fighters from wars in Algeria, Afghanistan and Bosnia as well as in Syria and Iraq.
Experts compared it to London’s Finsbury Park in the 1990s, another breeding ground for radicalism.
Part of the blame lay with local politicians who failed for years to face up to extremism in order to keep “social peace” and continue getting elected, Moniquet said.
Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel has admitted that Molenbeek has been a problem area, and he said Monday he had asked security services to make urgent plans to tackle the issue.
Soraya, a resident who wore a black headscarf, faulted the European security forces for being too lax and having poor intelligence.
She and her friend Nadia both said European border police fail to make checks when they and their families take the ferry and then drive back to Belgium from vacations in their native Morocco.
“You can bring any weapons in your car, and nobody would know,” Soraya said.
Mohammed, an electrician, said the lack of opportunities for immigrant populations in Molenbeek meant he was even thinking about returning with his family to Morocco.
Public schools in Molenbeek do not have the same quality of teachers as those in the wealthier, whiter suburbs, he said.