Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
Investigators have identified Molenbeek as a launchpad for the Paris attacks and several others.
It was a parking ticket that first thrust the Brussels district of Molenbeek into the international spotlight this weekend.
After the bloody attack on Paris on Friday, French police discovered a rental car used by the attackers near the Bataclan theatre. Finding an old fine notice from the Belgian capital inside, police started an international manhunt that led to seven arrests in the Brussels neighborhood, later named as the home of fugitive terrorist Salah Abdeslam.
Molenbeek may be a new name for the international media, but the inner-city neighborhood has been linked to a string of terror attacks dating back years. One of the perpetrators of the 2004 Madrid bombings was from Molenbeek, as was the AK 47-wielding man grappled to the ground by three passengers on the Amsterdam-Paris train this April. The gunman who shot four people at Brussels’ Jewish Museum in May 2014 had also spent time in the area.
With the area’s role as jihadist launchpad confirmed, many in Belgium are in shock and disbelief. How could this small neighborhood of inner Brussels have become a repeat hatching ground for terror attacks?
Struggling for years
On first glance, the place looks ordinary enough. Just across the canal from the hip Sainte Catherine neighborhood, it’s a not-unattractive area of low-rise Victorian tenements—gritty in appearance, but not markedly more so than many areas in generally rough-edged Brussels.
Behind the facades, however, Molenbeek has been in trouble for years. Poverty levels are high, and street and drug crime are common. With a reputation for gun crime, the media started calling it “Chicago on the Senne” (a reference to the Brussels river) as early as 2010.
These problems go hand-in-hand with a bleak outlook for residents. Local Muslims, who form 25 to 30 percent of the area’s population, talk in particular of limited educational and economic opportunities, as well as employment discrimination. As of January this year, 350 Belgian residents are known to have joined ISIS in Syria—a minuscule fraction of the country’s Muslims, but nonetheless more per capita than any other state in Europe.
This trend can in part be explained (albeit, of course, not justified) by conditions in places like Molenbeek. As one young man told Le Monde:
“Please understand that if lots of young people have left for Syria, it’s above all because no one’s ever paid them any attention, until these fanatics gave them the impression that at last they were going to truly exist. Me, I study and I speak French, Arabic and Dutch. But to look for a job I give the address of a friend, who doesn’t live in Molenbeek.”
A Brussels apart from Belgium
But these sorts of pressures rule for many Muslims across Europe, in areas that have seen little or no extremist activity. Not every rundown area with poor opportunities is a Molenbeek. So why has so much extremist activity clustered there?
The explanation, improbable as it may sound, rests in part on Belgium's linguistic diversity and the political realms that come with it. Since 1963, the country has been divided into substantially self-governing language communities: the Dutch-speaking Flemish Region in the north and French-speaking Wallonia in the south (which also contains a small German-speaking community on its western edge). The Brussels capital region stands apart from both of these, a so-called third community that has a French-speaking majority but is officially bilingual. As Belgium’s two main language communities have become more politically self-contained, Brussels has to an extent been left to its own devices.
Combating extremism on a citywide rather than national level is no easy feat, and the local Brussels government now stands accused, rightly or wrongly, of having been far too inactive for the past few decades. On Monday, an anonymous former employee of the French external intelligence service DGSE accused Belgium’s monitoring of not being up to snuff. A Molenbeek man interviewed in the French press Tuesday had this to say of the ease with which French people of Moroccan origin could go undercover in the area:
“Many French people who come here, sneak in, diluting themselves in the Moroccan community. They come, they get an identity card, everything is easy. In France there’s the DST [France’s Directory of Territorial Surveillance]. Here, there’s none of that.”
If this situation sounds problematic from afar, it’s equally alarming for local residents. Keen to show their sympathy the victims of the Paris attacks, Molenbeek is holding a solidarity demonstration this Tuesday afternoon. Already marginalized within their own city, many fear that they will feel yet more cornered and unsafe in the future. As one local man told AFP:
“We’re sitting between two fires: one from the whites and one from the Islamic extremists.”