Local gangs make notorious suburb of Molenbeek a terror haven
Published 23/03/2016 | 02:30
The attacks in Brussels highlight fears that fugitive terrorists have been shielded by a criminal underworld network that keeps police at bay in the city's immigrant quarter of Molenbeek.
The inner-city suburb has already gained notoriety as the district where at least three of the Paris attackers grew up, and also as an area where weapons and drugs are easily available.
It was also the home of Salah Abdeslam, the alleged "fixer" to the Paris terror network, who was arrested at a flat there last weekend, having apparently managed to stay on the run in Belgium for four months since the atrocities in November.
Following his detention on Friday, sources close to the investigation said that despite the massive anti-terrorism probe launched since the Paris attacks, police had still found it difficult to carry out investigations in Molenbeek due to teams of "spotters" or lookouts employed by local gangs.
"Spotters warn local gangs of approaching police cars, even if they are unmarked, by whistling or text messages to their mobile phones," said Jean-Paul Rouiller of Expect Consulting, a security firm specialising in counter-terrorism.
Abdeslam is thought to have spent most of his time on the run in an apartment in the Brussels suburb of Foret, but moved back to Molenbeek in the wake of a raid last Tuesday that led to the arrest of an alleged accomplice, Mohamed Belkaid.
Traces of mobile phone calls that Abdeslam then made to a network of criminal contacts enabled police to find his new hideout.
Claude Moniquet, a former intelligence agent who heads the European Centre for Strategic Intelligence and Security in Brussels, added: "There is a sort of clannishness in the area that is stronger than anything else. He (Abdeslam) benefited from this."
Molenbeek is located close to Brussels city centre, and is home to a Moroccan population that makes up around 40pc of its 100,000 people.
While its Victorian terraced apartment blocks are a far cry from the sprawling housing estates in the troubled migrant "banlieus" of Paris, it has nonetheless acquired a bad reputation in recent years thanks to links to terrorists, some of whom have pre-existing histories with local criminal gangs.
In the wake of the Paris attacks, Belgium's interior minister Jan Jambon admitted that "we don't have control of the situation in Molenbeek at present" and said the authorities needed to "clean up" the area.