Sunday 24 September 2017

Molenbeek: The Brussels suburb used by 'people with very bad intentions' in spotlight after Paris terror attacks

Belgian police stage a raid, in search of suspected muslim fundamentalists linked to the deadly attacks in Paris, in the Brussels suburb of Molenbeek, November 16. 2015. Reuters/Yves Herman
Belgian police stage a raid, in search of suspected muslim fundamentalists linked to the deadly attacks in Paris, in the Brussels suburb of Molenbeek, November 16. 2015. Reuters/Yves Herman

The spotlight has turned on the Brussels suburb of Molenbeek as police continue to hunt suspects from Friday's terrorist attacks in Paris.

At least one of the dead attackers and five of the people arrested in raids on Saturday had connections with the district and the mayor of the Belgian capital has said the area "must stop being a base for those who make war in Europe".

Located north-west of the city centre, Molenbeek has a strong Muslim contingent among its population of around 100,000, many of whom are of Moroccan and Turkish descent.

The 2.3 square-mile area has an unemployment rate of around 30% and its average age of 34 is almost three years younger than the rest of the region, according to the Brussels Institute of Statistics and Analysis.

Much of Molenbeek is a far cry from the cosmopolitan splendour of central Brussels. Smart terraces, broad streets and tram grooves occupy the busier parts of the suburb, but the area has never quite managed to shake off its industrial decline.

Shabby shop-fronts and ageing cars line the streets where immigrant neighbourhoods have sprung up. It is not the most deprived part of Belgium, but it is also not an area where there is much wealth.

Molenbeek's connection with terrorism has been increasingly apparent in recent years.

Hassan El Haski, one of the terrorists behind the Madrid bombings in 2004, lived there, while Mehdi Nemmouche, the main suspect in the shooting of four people in the Jewish Museum in Brussels last year, also stayed in the suburb.

Ayoub El Khazzani, the heavily armed man who was overpowered by three men on a train to Paris in August, stayed in Molenbeek with his sister before boarding the train.

Francoise Schepmans, the mayor of Molenbeek, told reporters: "They do not all come from here, and most of the time they are just travelling through. In some districts the population is very dense, with 80% of people from the north African region. Anonymity is easier for people passing through with very bad intentions."

Since Friday's attacks, Belgian authorities have called for a clampdown on extremism in the area.

Prime minister Charles Michel said: "Almost every time there's a link with Molenbeek. We have tried prevention. Now we will have to get repressive. It has been a form of laissez-faire and laxity. Now we are paying the bill."

Jan Jambon, Belgium's interior minister, said the Molenbeek problem is one "that must absolutely be solved".

He said: "I'm going to clean up Molenbeek. We cannot accept this any longer - we have to look at how to tackle this problem, how to eradicate it once and for all."

He added: "This reflects very badly."

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