Four days before Tuesday’s grisly bomb attacks in Brussels, the police raided a shabby three-story brick row house in this heavily Moroccan working-class district of Brussels. There they captured Salah Abdeslam, the last surviving member of the terror group that killed 130 people in Paris in November.
Abdeslam had eluded police for four months, and no one in Moleenbeek betrayed him. Nor did anyone warn police about Tuesday’s plans to bomb Brussels’ airport and metro.
So the new attacks raise the same frustrating question: How to deal with the social pathology that has made Molenbeek a notorious jihadi base from which youths travel to Syria and hatch plots to attack Europe?
Earlier this week I visited Molenbeek, and found two different communities, one isolated and resentful and the other struggling to advance with insufficient help from the outside. The key to halting the incubation of terror lies in whether officials can offer “the other Molenbeek” a more hopeful future – one that shields its children from the fantasies sold by the shills for jihad.
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At present, those children grow up isolated from the world outside their ghetto.
On the surface, Molenbeek doesn’t look scary. Crowds of locals, including many women in hijab, jostle along a main street lined with halal butcher shops, inexpensive clothing and household goods stores, barber shops, and cafes, where unemployed men gather to sip tea.
But residents say that Molenbeek has changed dramatically over the past decade, losing its onetime diversity of cultures. Shops and restaurants stopped selling alcohol, Islamic bookshops multiplied, the last Jewish shops (left over from when this was a post-WWII Jewish community) moved out after being threatened by hostile young men. Locals no longer mingle with other Belgians.
“This municipality has the highest population density in Brussels and one of the most youthful populations,” I was told over coffee by Sarah Turine, deputy mayor of Molenbeek. She says the schools are poor, and the dropout rate high, while unemployment reaches 40 to 50 percent in the 18- to 25-year-old age group.
“Recruiters from Syria come looking for them (unemployed youths, and), hang out in cafes and mosques to talk to them. They give them a sense of purpose,” Turine said.
Abdeslam was a typical school dropout: He trafficked in drugs with his brother (who was also one of the Paris attackers). There was no hint he was ever involved in radicalism, nor did he attend a mosque. But a childhood friend who had gone to Syria in 2014 recruited the brothers.
All over Europe, but especially in Belgium, officials are wrestling with how to reach out to alienated and culturally isolated Arab-European youths.
After many locals left for Syria in the summer of 2013, the Molenbeek municipality set up an outreach program to help families whose children “were in danger of leaving.” They trained social workers to discredit what the recruiters are saying.
Clearly these programs are insufficient.
“What can we do to manage these young people who prefer death to life?” asked Yves Goldstein, cabinet chief to the Brussels regional president, who addressed the German Marshal Fund’s annual Brussels Forum. Goldstein’s main concern: the failure to integrate isolated urban ghettoes such as Molenbeek into the wider world.
“We can’t deny that young people (in Molenbeek) are confused about the question of identity,” he said. “There is no diversity.
“We need to open the minds of these young people (but) we don’t know how to get them out of their ideological box.”
Goldstein believes that reaching children ages 7 to 12 – before they quit school – is essential. “We have to create more diverse schools, housing, education, but local governments have no money,” he said in frustration.
In other words, Belgian officials are spending hundreds of millions for security but haven’t the funds to bolster schools and expand cultural offerings for youth who are prey for jihadi recruiters.
Yet just three blocks from Abdeslam’s hideout, I found a hint of the other Molenbeek, the majority of whom are looking for a better life and fear that their children might be wooed away to fight jihad.
The symbol of this other Molenbeek is a new cafe, Le Palais de Balkis, which displays a level of diversity that had leeched out of the district.
Behind its nondescript front, there is a pleasantly airy space with wooden tables and a glass case displaying a variety of organic charcuterie – all halal. There I saw Muslims of all ages, including a family with a heavily covered mother and chic young girls in hijab, along with non-Arab Belgian “bobos” (slang for “bourgeois bohemiens”) whom one wouldn’t expect to see in the neighborhood.
Manager Karim Bazah said, “For me this is the real Molenbeek. I was born here. I want to build good things.”
Aziz Mouaouia, a factory worker at a local Audi plant, who had stopped for a snack, summed up for me the untapped possibilities in the community.
“Molenbeek is a victim of the political failure to integrate,” he states flatly.
“Abdeslam was caught in front of my kids’ elementary school,” he said, referring to the fortress-like structure across the street from the terrorist lair. “I am president of the parents’ association.”
He hopes his daughters will go to university but “it is difficult because teachers never show up and it is very hard to fire them. At 12 to 13 years old, the students drop out.”
“Young people want to live the dream they see in the movies,” he said, but “when they realize it is impossible, they turn to petty crime. Then if they try to reintegrate, society rejects them.
“This is the perfect opportunity for these recruiters to pick these guys up and capture them emotionally. Our parents’ organization is trying to organize projects to help the mothers of these guys. The mothers are scared (of the recruiters). They say, ‘I would prefer to see my son in prison.’”
Mouaouia suggests higher goals: “I say, ‘He could be a doctor.’”
The riddle of Molenbeek is how to convince more youths that they, too, could be doctors. One way would be to use some of the millions allotted to security to beef up the schools.
Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Readers may write to her at: Philadelphia Inquirer, P.O. Box 8263, Philadelphia, Pa. 19101, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.