Paris attackers linked to Belgian suburb where the authorities have 'lost control'
Two of the Paris attackers and at least three other people involved linked to a heavily-Muslim suburb of Brussels where the authorities admit they have “lost control”
Two of the Paris attackers – and at least three other people involved – are linked to a heavily-Muslim suburb of Brussels where the authorities admit they have “lost control.”
The neighbourhood of Molenbeek, which has been involved in many previous terror attacks, was last night emerging as a key centre of the plot. Belgian prosecutors said that one of the seven killers who died in Paris had been identified as a Frenchman living in Molenbeek, which is described by one expert as “the capital of political Islam in continental Europe.” A second attacker lived in or close to the district.
As a wave of new arrests was made in the area on Sunday, Belgium’s interior minister, Jan Jambon, admitted to VRT television that “we don’t have control of the situation in Molenbeek at present” and said the authorities needed to “clean up” the area.
The prime minister, Charles Michel, also said there was a “huge problem” in the district which needed “more repression,” a French term for law enforcement action. He added: "I see it is almost always related to Molenbeek. It was a form of laxity, to allow this. We are paying the bill for past laxity.”
Three men from Molenbeek suspected of involvement with the Paris killings travelled back from Paris to Brussels late on the night of the attacks, it has emerged. Their vehicle was stopped by French police at Cambrai, near the French-Belgian border, but officers found nothing suspicious, took their names and allowed them to drive on.
After the attacks a Belgian-registered car identified by witnesses as having been used by the killers was discovered near the Bataclan concert hall. A parking ticket from Molenbeek was found inside. According to French prosecutors, police discovered that the vehicle was hired or owned by one of the men in the car stopped at Cambrai.
Three men, believed to be the occupants of the car allowed to proceed at Cambrai, were then detained by Belgian police in a dramatic arrest close to Brussels’ Osseghem station shortly before 4pm on Saturday afternoon. Residents on nearby De Konicksstraat said that a major police operation took place on Saturday evening.
A property on the Place Communale, just minutes from the earlier raids, was also the subject to an overnight operation, according to witnesses. One resident at a property thought to have been among those raided claimed to have been told by police not to open the door or speak to journalists "for his own safety".
Armed police operations continued on Sunday, arresting a further four people, with one operation witnessed by The Daily Telegraph in the nearby Rue d'Ostende.
Molenbeek, a district of 100,000 inhabitants, of whom about 30 per cent are Muslim, has been linked to numerous terror attacks and plots, including the attempted shooting of passengers aboard a Thalys high-speed train from Amsterdam and Brussels to Paris this August.
The Thalys attacker, Ayoub El Khazzani, who tried to open fire on passengers with a Kalashnikov rifle, lived for more than a year in Molenbeek and boarded the train in Brussels. Had the weapon not jammed, and had he not been overpowered by some of the passengers, a massacre similar to those in Paris would have occurred.
The area, a place of Victorian terraced apartment blocks, kebab shops and discount clothes stores, has been home to many other terrorists. Mehdi Nemmouche, who last year opened fire with a Kalashnikov rifle at the Jewish Museum in Brussels, killing four, lived in Molenbeek.
One of the terrorists in the 2004 commuter train attacks in Madrid, Europe’s worst Islamist terror attack, which killed 191, was from the neighbourhood. At least three other attacks and plots have been carried out by people from the area.
“We have here in Brussels as big a concentration of radical Islamists as you have in London,” said Bilal Benyaich, from the Free University of Brussels, an expert on radicalisation in Belgium. “You can call Brussels the capital of political Islam in continental Europe.”
He said the district’s involvement with terrorist plots was at “three levels – as an operational base, a centre for ideological inspiration, and a centre of supply, with items such as weaponry.”
Unlike in London, however, Mr Benyaich said that the authorities were “not tackling” the problem. “There is still a gap between the rhetoric and the capacity,” he said. “They can learn a lot from the Americans and the British.”
Mr Benyaich, a Belgian of Moroccan heritage, said Molenbeek had an “enormous black economy” which made it harder for the authorities to enforce the law. “It is not just terrorism, it is drugs, it is weapons,” he said. “If you would come here, you could find a Kalashnikov in 30 minutes. The police find it more difficult to operate here.”
Maartin Bijens, 32, a kindergarten teacher who witnessed masked and armed policemen arrest suspects in a car outside his flat, told the Telegraph the raid came as no surprise.
"I had guessed the arrests were to do with the Paris attacks because over the last few years, all the big European terrorist attacks have been connected to Molenbeek,” he said.
Belgium has a higher per capita number of foreign fighters, 40 per million, than any other European state. A radical group, Sharia4Belgium, set up by followers of the British extremist Anjem Choudary, is blamed for much of the exodus.
Mr Benyaich said: “The original Muslim immigrants to Molenbeek were radical Islamists fleeing from oppressive, secular regimes. What is different and dangerous is that the new generation has turned away from plots against the Middle East and towards attacking non-Muslims.”
Molenbeek has also fallen victim to the deep political divisions between French and Dutch-speaking areas of Belgium. Molenbeek, as part of Brussels, is shared between the two groups and central authority is weak.
Mr Jambon, the interior minister, also blamed fragmentation for the problems. “Brussels is a relatively small city, 1.2 million,”he said. “And yet we have six police departments. New York is a city of 11 million. How many police departments do they have? One.”