Welcome to Molenbeek: A hotbed of jihadism

In January, police raided a suspected Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) terror cell in Verviers in east Belgium, killing two men who were alleged to be on the brink of a major Paris-style attack. They also hailed from the Molenbeek area and were suspected to be ISIL veterans who had returned from fighting in Syria. While over the last few days the Belgian police have carried out a series of raids in Molenbeek in an effort to “drain the jihadi swamp,” it is too little too late. The Belgian authorities have known for a long time that the commune was a jihadist breeding ground, but more or less turned a blind eye. As Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel said on Sunday night: “It’s been a form of laisser faire and laxity. Now we’re paying the bill.”

I know Molenbeek well because I live in Brussels and it was the first place I lived when I moved to Belgium nearly two decades ago. While there is a more upmarket part of Molenbeek, it is broadly speaking a poor neighborhood with a high level of unemployment that is around 40 percent. Levels of education are low and there is a lot of petty crime and criminality. Men and boys hang around in tea houses or on street corners. Economic and social disenfranchisement is very evident. My whole neighborhood was of Moroccan descent, including all the inhabitants of the house in which I was living. My personal experience was not a good one. My apartment was broken into several times, including by my own landlord.

Indeed, Belgium is per capita by far the European nation that is contributing most to the foreign element in the Syrian war, having the highest number of jihadis among western European countries. The country has a disproportionate amount of jihadists given its small 9 million population. An estimated 516 Belgians have travelled to Syria as foreign fighters. This is about double that of France, and four times that of the UK. Many of those who have returned have created terrorist cells and networks like the one that was responsible for the Paris attacks. This is a very alarming situation. According to expert Pieter van Ostaeten, this means that out of Belgium’s Muslim population of some 640,000, approximately one in every 1,260 has been involved in jihad in Syria and Iraq. The biggest number of jihadis come from the second and third generation Moroccan migrant population. Moroccans began to arrive in the 1960s and 1970s.

In fact, jihadi activity is nothing new in Belgium. The trend began in the late 90s with fighters returning from wars in Algeria and Afghanistan. For years, Sharia4Belgium, a radical Salafist organization that denounced democracy and called for Belgium to convert itself into an Islamist state, was openly promoting radicalization in the country and was one of the main actors recruiting foreign fighters. Only in February 2015 was the group designated a terrorist organization.

So why has Belgium become such a hotbed for radicalism? Firstly, Belgium differs from other countries with a similar demographic make-up because it has a smaller, more concentrated population, making it easier for recruiters to spread their message if they capture the right sentiments. Furthermore, as in neighboring France, relations between parts of the Muslim community and the state have not been easy and efforts at integrating these communities into Belgian society more broadly have been fraught with difficulties. When Belgium introduced a ban on the full face veil in 2011 it provoked protests in some quarters. What’s more, the number of people without a job in the Muslim community is high which makes them prime targets for radicalism, as does the fact that they perceive themselves as socially excluded and second-class civilians. The growth in the popularity of far-right political parties, in particular the Flemish nationalist Vlaams Belang party with its explicit anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim rhetoric, has been very detrimental. Hence increased feelings of marginalization have driven some young people into the arms of Islamist recruiters. When you have no future, you are much easier prey for preachers of hatred. Pushing back against this trend is the challenge we face today and it will not be easy at all.