Middle-of-the road Brussels district is focus of terrorist investigation

A relatively quiet area in the Belgian capital has emerged as a centre of jihadist activity

Belgian special forces police climb high on an apartment block during a raid in search of suspected muslim fundamentalists linked to the deadly attacks in Paris, in the Brussels suburb of Molenbeek. Photograph: Yves Herman/Reuters

Belgian special forces police climb high on an apartment block during a raid in search of suspected muslim fundamentalists linked to the deadly attacks in Paris, in the Brussels suburb of Molenbeek. Photograph: Yves Herman/Reuters

 

For the second time in 48 hours, the Brussels suburb of Molenbeek found itself at the centre of international attention yesterday as the hunt for the Paris attackers led investigators to this small corner of the Belgian capital. At 11am local time police stormed an apartment at 47 Rue Delaunoy as heavily armed police with sniffer dogs closed off a section of the street. Following a four- hour operation during which number of shot-like sounds and explosions were heard, Belgian police said that no arrests had been made.

The quiet, residential street is located just 10 minutes’ walk from Rue Dubois-Thorn, the road where police conducted a counter-terrorism raid on Saturday, seizing a black Volkswagen car and arresting several individuals.

Molenbeek has emerged as a key focus of the massive international investigation underway since Friday’s terrorist attacks which left at least 129 people dead. Over the past 72 hours a sophisticated terrorist web, stretching from Syria to Paris via Brussels, has been revealed to be behind the coordinated attacks, with one of the chief perpetrators still at large.

As French President François Hollande starkly put it in his parliamentary address at Versailles yesterday: “The attacks were planned in Syria, organised in Belgium, and perpetrated on our soil with the help of French nationals.”

As arrests continue, the specific links between the Paris attacks and a terrorist cell in Belgium are beginning to emerge.

Two of the cars used by terrorists in Friday’s attacks were rented in Belgium, while at least three of the eight people who carried out Friday’s terrorist attacks lived in Brussels.

International manhunt

Bilal HadfiFranceBrahim Abdeslam

The third Abdeslam brother, Mohamed Abdeslam, who is believed to be a former employee of the local council in Molenbeek, was one of five suspects arrested in Molenbeek over the weekend but was released on Monday by Belgian prosecutors. Of the seven people arrested in Brussels on Saturday and Sunday two have been charged and five released yesterday without charge.

However, it is the suggestion by French prosecutors that the man responsible for orchestrating Friday night’s attacks is 27-year-old Belgian Abdelhamid Abaaoud that is causing most alarm. Abaddoud, who is orignally from Molenbeek, is believed to be currently fighting in Syria where he is a leading figure in Islamic State.

He is believed by authorities to be behind the foiled terrorist attack on a high-speed train travelling from Amsterdam to Paris in August. Belgian police also named him as one of the suspects involved in a planned attack on Belgian police which was foiled in January, a week after the Charlie Hebdo attacks, when Belgian police killed two people in a counter-terrorism raid in the southern Belgian town of Verviers.

Local media reports have said Mr Abaaoud also recruited his 13-year-old brother to join Islamic State in Syria where he is believed to be one of the youngest people fighting for them.

Quiet disbelief

As the people of Belgium and Molenbeek reflect on their status as a European jihadist hub – Prime Minister Charles Michel conceded on Saturday that the neighbourhood is a “gigantic problem” – questions are being asked about how this form of brutal extremism has been allowed to flourish in the Belgian capital. Some blame the over- bureaucratic police and judicial system, a product of Belgium’s dual Franco-Flemish community, which they say has allowed Brussels to become a soft target in terms of surveillance and law and order.

The requirement that people speak both Flemish and French in order to secure certain jobs, may be hindering those of non- Belgian descent who speak Arabic as their first or second language. Others believe that Belgium’s brutal colonial past in the Belgian Congo, which was followed by a wave of immigration from North Africa and the Middle East in the 1960s and 1970s, sowed the seed of future disenfranchisement, eventually leading some young Muslims into the arms of Islamic State.

Whatever the reasons for Belgium’s emergence as a centre of jihadist terrorism in Europe, the country is faced with a period of national soul-searching as it tries to come to terms with the terrorist threat in its midst.

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