CATF Reports Mar. 25, 2016, 8:26am


Shortly after last week’s arrest of the last surviving architect of the Paris terrorist attacks, Salah Abdeslam, the three bombs that rocked Brussels tragically cast Molenbeek as the new symbol of Muslim violent discrimination and radicalization in Europe. With 95,000 people living in the neighborhood, the working class district makes up one of the more densely populated areas in Brussels and hosts a conspicuous Muslim community that has been intensely scrutinized over the post months, believed to be the pulsing center of a network “smuggling radicalized Muslims to Syria and back.”

According to Politico, 94 Islamists trained in Syria are still known to be living in the area. 120 houses out of 30,000 in the district were searched over the past four months in connection to the Paris attacks investigation. Four of the terrorists involved in the planning and execution of the Paris attacks came from Molenbeek. Ayoob el Kahzani, of Moroccan origin, who tried to attack passengers on a high-speed train to Paris last August, is believed to have lived in Molenbeek as well. It is in this neighborhood that Salah Abdeslam managed to hide over the past several months after the Paris attacks and before he was caught in a police raid on Friday, March 18th. He was cornered in an apartment in rue des Quatre-vents, 79, about 450 meters away from the location where he is believed to have planned the Paris attacks.

Politico columnist Tim King warned against generalist claims and emphasized that altogether, Molenbeek is not a no-go zone; the neighborhood’s most critical problems are concentrated in smaller areas. Yet experts have claimed to be not surprised after the news of the most recent terrorist attacks at the airport in Zaventem and at Maelbeek metro station surfaced. Many have rushed to posit that there was an easy explanation behind the question of why Molenbeek may have turned into a jihadi hotbed. In a nutshell, poverty and discrimination created conditions ripe for the radicalization of young Muslims. Molenbeek is one of the poorest areas of Europe’s capital, plagued by a 40% youth unemployment rate and a tangible perception shared by local youth that they are discriminated against in jobs and opportunities. More generally, however, Molenbeek represents the deep dysfunctions of the Belgian state, which is sitting on decades of accumulated failures in politics, justice, economics and finance – a dramatic combination that created “the vacuum that is being exploited by jihadi terrorists.”

On November 19, 2015, while reflecting on the Paris attacks, Washington Post reporter Stephen Mufson unveiled the research of Hind Frahi, a Belgian woman of Moroccan origin who went undercover for two months in Molenbeek about a decade earlier. “The virulent strain of violent extremism she found should have been a wake-up call for Belgium,” Mufson observed. Of course no policy change followed, and because initiatives to fight extremism have been insufficient, Frahi admonished that there was a “whole generation waiting to participate” in terrorist enterprises.

The Great Mosque of Brussels
The Great Mosque of Brussels

This was a decade ago. Today Belgian authorities are faced with a country that counts the highest numbers of foreign fighters per capita of any other in Europe. “The Islamic State is giving them what the Belgian government can’t give them – identity, structure,” commented Montasser Al De’emeh, a researcher interviewed by The Washington Post. “They don’t feel Moroccan or Belgian. They don’t feel part of either society.”

There is one profile that is being overlooked in analyses of the bigger picture in the aftermath of Brussels’ attacks. Radicalism has prospered for decades in Belgium sustained by an uninterrupted flow of funding from Saudi Arabia since the late 1970s. In an interview with Italian reporter Giulio Meotti, Belgian terrorist expert Michael Privot alleged that political deals – such as the one that allowed Saudi Arabia to establish a pied-à-terre in Belgium after the official recognition of the Islamic religion by Belgium’s King Baudoin in 1974 – heavily contributed to today’s situation. The official recognition of Islam in Belgium came in the midst of the oil crisis in 1974, and was probably extended in hopes of securing oil supply for Belgium.

The Saudi monarchs’ staunch commitment to the mission of exporting Wahhabi Salafism outside the country’s borders was fruitful over time, especially in Belgium. Since the Great Mosque in Brussels opened its doors in 1978, Saudi Arabia populated the newly established Belgian mosques with clerics who started to preach a hyper-conservative version of Islam, clashing with the traditional beliefs of Belgium’s first wave of Muslim immigrants who came from Morocco and Turkey. A Wikileaks cable also revealed that Belgian authorities were concerned about fundamentalist teachings being spread from the Great Mosque. Privot observed that “today, in Brussels, 95% of the courses offered on Islam for Muslims are operated by young preachers trained in SA [Saudi Arabia].”

In her writings, Frahi described the extremely easy conditions under which she could purchase books preaching jihad from open book vendors during her stay in Molenbeek about a decade ago. The books, which were reprinted in Amsterdam but originally written in Saudi Arabia, taught a radical version of Islam, debunked Western institutions, incited revenge on non-believers and suggested communication strategies by referring to secret codes that could be used to escape detection. As demand grew in Muslim communities to know about their religion, Saudi Arabia responded with material and programs aligned to the Wahhabist dogma the country sponsors. “Finally, the Great Mosque has been in a position to hire a number of young preachers, mostly trained in Saudi Arabia or by people trained there, born here, also knowing their environment well, speaking French and Dutch and able to offer family counseling for youth, who have given hundreds of conferences everywhere in Belgium over the years, and therefore have key impact on the understanding of Islam by the new generation, in disconnect with the understanding of their parents,” Privot emphasizes. “Other Muslim countries have been unable to offer grants to students on such a scale.”

Giulio Meotti wrote that Saudi Arabia donates €1 million for the maintenance and renovation of the twenty mosques in Molenbeek on a yearly basis. Qatar is now pursuing the same strategic goals as Saudi Arabia both in Brussels and in Europe. Just like Saudi Arabia, Qatar is exploiting the needs of local communities unaddressed by the state to consolidate allegiances and shape cultural and political change, mostly through mosques and schools. Over the past few months, public opinion has voiced concerns about Qatar’s declared intention to build a mosque with a 600-person capacity attached to the new Qatari embassy in Brussels. As we discussed in a previous analysis, so far the tiny Gulf monarchy has been extremely successful in France, an economically weakened country grappling with failed policies of integration that has generated the growth of dozens of Molenbeeks over the last decade. In its struggle for symbolic and material prominence worldwide, the Gulf monarchy has disbursed several million euros to support the construction of the Assalam mosque in Nantes and the An-Nour mosque in Mulhouse. The French Interior Minister counted 751 Zones Urbaines Sensibles, sensitive urban zones on French soil with the same prospects of failed integration as Molenbeek, which, as a result, threaten to pose the same risk to societal stability.

Belgian and European authorities are faced today with the dramatic legacy of all of the unaddressed challenges and missed opportunities that Molenbeek symbolizes. They translate into the alarming scenario of thousands of citizens radicalized online, lured from lives of petty crime or insignificant routine to ISIS-promoted jihad by “a big collective story, a story of our society, a dream, an aspiration, an idealism.” Nation states must take responsibility for their failed promises of integration that are reinforcing local community-based affiliations. At the same time, Europe is in dire need of a collective response to the increasing pervasion within its borders of the wealthy funders of Salafism – its military partners and political allies – who secured for themselves channels of indoctrination and a cover for illicit enterprises by leveraging poverty and segregation.  

More News