Molenbeek, Brussels is a place where there has been a huge demographic explosion between 1995 (68,000 inhabitants) and 2015 (96,000 regularly staying and 4,000 undocumented inhabitants). Its population density is enormous by Belgian standards. It has a very young population. One-third of the families with children are mother-monoparental, without a father present at home. Youth unemployment is high. Molenbeek has a street culture where drug dealing and commerce in weapons is not absent. In such a context, you may feel stigmatised and unaccepted as an adolescent.
But Molenbeek is more complex than that. There is a richer High and a poor Low Molenbeek. In Low Molenbeek there are four districts, not all of them monocultural or evenly “closed”. Molenbeek, which the media has presented as homogeneous, the foyer of European jihadism, is, in reality, a global mosaic. At the same time, it is also at the centre of a “crescent of poverty” (composed of some five communes and 10 districts that are not all part of Molenbeek). What follows is a tentative reconstruction of the jihadi story.
The French Algerian-Molenbeek jihadi connection: One of the first European jihadis was Khaled Kelkal, who radicalised in jail in France (1990-92). He was a member of the Groupe Islamique Armé (GIA) and was killed by the French police in September 1995. His comrade, Djamel Beghal, also a French-Algerian member of the GIA, came for some months to live in Molenbeek. Beghal left for Afghanistan in 2000 and was back in France one year later. During his stay in Molenbeek, Beghal came into contact with Malika El Aroud and French-Syrian Sheikh Ayachi Bassam.
Bassam was obliged to leave France in 1992 because of his extremist views and preaching. He came to Molenbeek, where he started his pro-jihad activities in 1997 with the creation of the Centre Islamique Belge (CIB). He had close contacts with Malika El Aroud and entered into contact with Farid Mellouk, again a French-Algerian member of the GIA.
At the CIB, Abd al-Sattar Dahmane married Malika El Aroud and, some weeks later, he killed Afghan commander Ahmad Shah Massoud in Afghanistan a few days before 9/11. Some recruitment for Afghanistan and later for Somalia was started in Molenbeek. Nizar Trabelsi, a former professional soccer player in Germany of Tunisian provenance, arrested in 2001 and 2003, and condemned to 10 years of jail in Belgium, became part of this network. Trabelsi continued his recruitment activities in jail.
After a court case in Brussels against his son and his comrade Gendron, Bassam left Molenbeek for Italy in 2006, where, in Bari, a new case was started against him in 2008.
The Anglo-Saxon connection: In 2006, the British-Pakistani hate preacher, Anjem Choudary, founder of Sharia4UK, came to Belgium to found Sharia4Belgium. He met Fouad Belkacem, who had been, since 2004, promoting the idea of a Sharia legislation for Belgium among youngsters in Boom and Antwerp. Starting from Antwerp, these youngsters also became active in Vilvoorde, a small city near Brussels-Molenbeek. Many Moroccan families in Molenbeek have family members living in Vilvoorde. Their children meet during the year and on holidays in the Rif in north Morocco. They also meet other youngsters from the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany there.
Central Rif is an area under the control of organised crime because of the large hashish production. From the central Rif starts an important hashish smuggling activity through Spain, France and Belgium to the Netherlands. Is it pure coincidence that a number of jihadis are drugs dealers before their “conversion”?
The shift from Syria-Iraq to Europe: Once free, in 2012, Bassam left first for Molenbeek and later for Syria. In Molenbeek, he developed in a short time new contacts with future jihadi youngsters who were already entering the world of jihad through social media and the internet: The cyberjihadis.
In 2005, Abu Musab al-Suri published The Global Islamic Resistance Call. The text was put on the internet. His plea: Jihadism should change its methodology. It should become a system, not remain an organisation. We see developments in the Belgian structure of jihadism. The pre-existing French Algerian-Belgian connection continues, as does recruitment principally amongst criminals in Molenbeek and neighbouring districts. Cyberjihadism recruits another kind of population, young men and women, victims of conspiracy theories, who naively put their trust in the Syrian-Iraqi caliphate.
New hate preachers and recruiters became very active in Molenbeek: Zerkani and Rashid Benomari. Abdelhamid Abaaoud, a young man who had contact with Mehdi Mennouche, the killer at the Brussels Jewish museum (2014), became part of the recruited cluster. Afterwards, Abaaoud became one of the organisers of the Paris attacks (2015).
In 2005 itself, al-Suri saw Europe as a battlefield for the coming years. From then on, jihadism prepared its cells and networks around Europe. Like a true mafia-like organisation, the Islamic State has studied the weaknesses in the EU structure and divided the EU battlefield into linguistic areas. Brussels (and Molenbeek) have been folded in with France. Antwerp, that is Dutch-speaking, has become assimilated with the Netherlands and Germany.
The dysfunctions inside the EU have been analysed by the IS — for example, the relations between the police and intelligence in each European country. What is the relationship between the different intelligence services in Europe? How do the courts judge cases of Islamic extremism?
In the summer of 2014, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared in Syria that the territorial jihad should be changed to a global jihad. The fight should no longer be restrained to Iraq and Syria. Violent jihad should be stimulated, also in Europe.
So why is there such a strong association between IS terror and Belgium? Taking the above findings into account, one comes to the following conclusion: There is the geopolitical position of Belgium, there are the various complementary jihadi lines, Latin ones as well as Anglo-Saxon ones, and the criminal road to the central Rif in north Morocco, and finally, there is the lack of experience of Belgian institutional systems with mafia-like structures, and also the complexity of the Belgian organisation of democracy and cohabitation.
However, this is also an EU challenge. The EU leadership should be very conscious that after the attacks in London, Madrid, Paris and Brussels, new candidate cities to be attacked may be Berlin or Rome, or still another European capital.
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