BRUSSELS (AFP) – In Molenbeek, the rundown Brussels neighborhood with the unenviable reputation as a haven for jihadists, residents are struggling to confront the threat of radicalism as recruiters increasingly go underground to prey on the area’s youngsters.
Molenbeek catapulted to global attention after it emerged the district had been home to several of the Islamic State attackers who took part in last November’s Paris terror assaults, which killed 130 people.
The unflattering spotlight fueled criticism that Belgian authorities had closed their eyes to the problems gripping the impoverished, immigrant-heavy area, leaving its discontented youth vulnerable to jihadist recruiters.
Efforts to recruit were brazen until about two years ago, with long-bearded extremists openly calling for jihad in the streets or outside mosques, until the authorities cracked down and made some high-profile arrests.
Since then recruiters have switched tactics, approaching youngsters more discreetly and taking their messages online.
Belgium, with a population of 11 million, is per capita Europe’s biggest supplier of foreign jihadists to Syria, with more than 500 citizens leaving since 2011.
Sometimes the recruiters stand on street corners hoping to engage Molenbeek residents in conversations in which they try to tap into frustrations about lack of opportunities or perceived injustices, locals say.
Sofian, 18, who is looking for work as a security guard, said he himself has never been targeted by recruiters but several of his friends have been approached on the street, in parks and in the apartment hallways where groups of youngsters sometimes hang out.
“At first, you think ‘oh, these guys are just like us and could be cool,’ but then you realize they have pretty extreme ideas,” he told AFP. “They say: ‘Come with us to Syria, your life here is shitty,'” he said.
“And online it’s the same thing, they’re not hiding, with pictures on Facebook or messages or the videos they share.”
Olivier Vanderhaeghen, a social worker tasked with preventing radicalization in Molenbeek, says the local demographic facilitates recruitment.
“There is a sizable Arab-Muslim community experiencing any number of difficulties,” with 40 percent of Molenbeek residents under 25 unemployed, allowing recruiters to “play a little on the youth’s sense of hopelessness,” says Vanderhaeghen.
Recruitment goes underground
When undercover police “come here to try to track (potential trouble-makers) they themselves are spotted in 30 minutes” by residents.
“It’s very difficult to shadow them — and the recruiters know it.”
But Vanderhaeghen says radicals are finding it “increasingly hard to recruit” in an area whose reputation now goes before it.
Sarah Turine, deputy mayor for Molenbeek with responsibility for youth affairs, said however that “a more underground, hidden form of recruitment” has emerged.
Turine points out that various attackers behind the Paris and last week’s Brussels attacks had never actually traveled to Syria. What they do have in common is a long list of convictions for minor crime and time spent behind bars.
Such was the case of brothers Brahim and Salah Abdeslam, both from Molenbeek.
Brahim Abdeslam blew himself up outside a bar, wounding one person, in the November 13 Paris attacks. Salah Abdeslam, the sole surviving suspect in that operation, was arrested in Molenbeek on March 18, just meters from his family home.
“The lesson to be drawn from the attacks is that Daesh (IS) is mobilizing criminal networks who are not necessarily linked ideologically or who have gone to Syria … who accept participating in organizing attacks here,” says Turine.
Often in the case of young radicals “we find it is in jail, in Belgium, where they have clustered and turned to radicalism, becoming a true danger to society,” says Vanderhaeghen.
Social workers are battling to break the cycle of social rupture that leads to radicalism, whereby a vulnerable youth will drop out of school, quit his soccer club and then withdraw altogether from his social sphere, having first questioned not just family authority but also their approach to Islam.
“It is the most fragile, the weakest spirits, who get drawn in,” says Sofian, who grew up in a largely Moroccan area of Molenbeek.
One youth, Anis, felt a void in life which prompted his departure for Syria aged just 18.
He didn’t return, killed in a February 2015 bombing raid on IS positions.
Geraldine Henneghien, his mother, is a stalwart with a Molenbeek parents’ association founded by families who have seen a child head to Syria.
“We simply must work with young people and tell them very clearly what their place is in Belgian society — and stop saying they are the product of immigration,” says Geraldine.