For months, Salah Abdeslam was Europe’s most-wanted man. He was accused of helping plot the horrific November terrorist attacks carried out by a team of well-organized militants beneath officials’ noses in Paris.
But when Abdeslam was finally captured last week, he wasn’t caught with his alleged Islamic State associates in Syria. He was captured where he grew up, practically in plain sight of his hunters — in Brussels’ working-class, largely Moroccan neighborhood of Molenbeek St. Jean.
Abdeslam’s capture and Tuesday’s bombings of Brussels’ airport and a rail station are already raising questions about the quality of Belgium’s national security, which is seen as weaker than some of its European counterparts.
The latest events are also reinforcing outsiders’ suspicions of Molenbeek as “the jihadi capital of Europe,” or something similar to how Los Angeles viewed Little Tokyo in 1941: a den of dangerous outsiders nestled in the heart of a great and imperiled city.
Molenbeek isn’t a suburb, unlike the teeming banlieues that are home to many Paris immigrant communities. It sits in the heart of Brussels, across a canal from a trendy neighborhood of bars and cafes. A large number of its residents are not newcomers, but native Belgians, many of Moroccan descent, often wearing veils or other traditional clothing.
Over the weekend, a customer in a cosmetic store described Molenbeek as “toujours bien, c’est le calm, Zen” — always fine, calm — as others in the shop emphasized that the neighborhood was a place of hard workers who led good lives and stayed out of trouble.
Its image from the outside is more fraught. A French writer recently joked that officials should consider bombing Molenbeek instead of Islamic State’s self-declared capital of Raqqah. Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz raised the specter of a Molenbeek in the U.S., saying Tuesday that “we need to empower law enforcement to patrol and secure Muslim neighborhoods before they become radicalized.”
Belgium leads European countries with the largest number of fighters per capita leaving to join Islamist militant groups in Syria and Iraq, according to a January report from the International Center for the Study of Radicalization and Political Violence, a London think tank.
Molenbeek’s residents have also included Ayoub El Khazzani, a Moroccan national who was subdued by two off-duty U.S. servicemen and other passengers after launching an attack on a train from Amsterdam to Paris last year; Mehdi Nemmouche, who killed three people at a Jewish museum in Brussels in 2014; and several members of a jihadist cell broken up during a police raid in Verviers in eastern Belgium in early 2015.
Molenbeek residents and advocates have complained about being demonized for the actions of a few.
“The trouble is the root causes and not the trees,” said Jamal Ikazban, a deputy in the Brussels Parliament and the leader of the opposition on the Molenbeek Council. He said he worries about Molenbeek becoming “the black sheep of the world.”
“We’re in the same boat,” Ikazban said. “I meet people in Brussels and Molenbeek in tears for what has happened. They are afraid.”
After World War II, Belgium needed workers to help rebuild the country and work in its coal mines, and in the 1960s, Belgium formalized immigration agreements with Morocco and Turkey; many Moroccans settled in Molenbeek.
But several generations later, their descendants have not assimilated — nor have they been welcomed — the way some third- and fourth-generation immigrants often have in other countries. As one third-generation Belgian city bus driver put it, “When I go to Morocco, I am not Moroccan there, and I am not Belgian here.”
A woman lights a candle in the area of the explosion at the Maelbeek subway station in Brussels, Belgium.(JULIEN WARNAND / EPA)
Belgian soldiers gesture for vehicles to keep clear as they patrol near a Brussels court building where Paris terror suspect Salah Abdeslam was expected to appear.
(Peter Dejong / Associated Press)
A Belgian police officer and soldier guard a Brussels court building where Paris terror suspect Salah Abdeslam was expected to appear.
b(Peter Dejong / Associated Press)
A police officer stands guard outside the Council Chamber of Brussels during investigations into the Paris and Brussels terrorist attacks.(Kenzo Tribouillard / AFP/Getty Images)
A woman and children sit and mourn for the victims of the bombings at the Place de la Bourse in the center of Brussels.(Martin Meissner / Associated Press)
Hundreds gather at Place de la Bourse in Brussels to mourn on Wednesday evening.(Martin Meissner / Associated Press)
Brussels Airport workers and relatives pay tribute to the victims of Tuesday’s attacks.(Philippe Huguen / AFP/Getty Images)
Police leave after investigating a house Wednesday in the Anderlecht neighborhood in Brussels, one day after Tuesday’s deadly suicide attacks.(Peter Dejong / Associated Press)
Soldiers and police carry out checks at the Central Station in Brussels on Wednesday, a day after blasts hit the Belgian capital.(Patrik Stollarz / AFP/Getty Images)
Police carry out checks at the Central Station in Brussels on Wednesday.(Patrik Stollarz / AFP/Getty Images)
A woman writes messages in a tribute to the people killed and injured in terrorist attacks at Place de la Bourse in Brussels.(Yoan Valat / European Pressphoto Agency)
A man reacts as people gather to observe a minute of silence in memory of the victims of the Brussels airport and metro bombings, on the Place de la Bourse in central Brussels.(PATRIK STOLLARZ / AFP/Getty Images)
People gather in Brussels to pay tribute to the victims a day after deadly terrorist attacks struck the city.(Aurore Belot / AFP/Getty Images)
People gather around floral tributes, drawings, candles and notes in front of the Bourse of Brussels on Tuesday(AURORE BELOT / AFP/Getty Images)
A woman writes a message on the ground as people leave tributes at the Place de la Bourse following today’s attacks in Brussels, Belgium.(Carl Court / Getty Images)
A security camera photo released on March 22 by Belgian authorities shows three suspects in the attack at Brussels Airport.(AFP/Getty Images)
An unidentified traveler lies on the ground in a smoke-filled terminal after an explosion at Brussels Airport on Tuesday.(Ralph Usbeck / Associated Press)
Two women injured in the explosions at Brussels Airport sit amid shattered glass on Tuesday.(Ketevan Kardava / Georgian Public Broadcaster )
An injured man lies on the floor waiting for aid at Brussels Airport.(Ketevan Kardava / Associated Press)
Smoke fills the terminal at Brussels Airport, where a pair of explosions killed at least 11 people.(Ralph Usbeck / Associated Press)
Brussels commuters climb out of a Metro subway car after an explosion at the Maalbeek station. A series of coordinated explosions ripped through Brussels Airport and the Metro station with dozens killed.(AFP/Getty Images)
Police and rescue teams set up outside the Maelbeek Metro station in Brussels.(Martin Meissner / Associated Press)
Special police secure the Brussels city center as Belgium raised its terror alert to its highest level on Tuesday.(Martin Meissner / Associated Press)
A victim receives first aid from rescuers near Maelbeek metro station in Brussels after an explosion.(Emmanuel Dunand / AFP/Getty Images)
A man with bloodstains on his sweater leaves Brussels Airport following explosions.(Dirk Waem / AFP/Getty Images)
People stand near Brussels Airport after being evacuated.(Geert Vanden Wijngaert / Associated Press)
Passengers are evacuated from Brussels Airport after explosions.(John Thys / AFP/Getty Images)
Emergency rescue workers tend to an unidentified person at the site of an explosion at a metro station in Brussels, Belgium.(Associated Press)
Soldiers block the access to roads close to a metro station in Brussels after a series of apparently coordinated explosions in the city.(Philippe Huguen / AFP/Getty Images)
A victim is evacuated after a explosion in a main metro station in Brussels.(Virginia Mayo / Associated Press)
Passengers leave Brussels Airport after explosions prompted an evacuation.(Laurent Dubrule / European Pressphoto Agency)
A woman is evacuated in an ambulance after a explosion in a Brussels metro station Tuesday.(Virginia Mayo / Associated Press)
People are evacuated from Brussels Airport on Tuesday following explosions.(Dirk Waem / AFP/Getty Images)
A man is wounded after explosions in Brussels Airport on Tuesday.(Ketevan Kardava / Georgian Public Broadcaster)
A Belgian police vehicle drives past passengers who are evacuating the Brussels Airport.(Jonas Roosens / AFP/Getty Images)
People walk away from Brussels Airport on Tuesday after it was rocked by explosions.(Geert Vanden Wijngaert / Associated Press)
All flights were canceled at Brussels Airport after two explosions rocked the main hall.(AFP/Getty Images)
High unemployment and disenchantment have helped incubate a generation of restless young men who are drawn to Islamic State’s calls for fighters, experts say. Belgium’s involvement in the U.S.-led military coalition against Islamic State has also made it a target, and experts have wondered whether Belgium’s security forces are up to the task.
Belgium sits at the heart of Europe and hosts the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, but a linguistic and cultural divide has cleaved the country in half since its birth in 1830, often making national governance difficult. Dutch speakers live in the region of Flanders to the north. French speakers live in Wallonia to the south.
“You’ve obviously got a patchwork and balkanized police structure to begin with, which reflects the broader political picture of the country,” said Frank Cilluffo, director of the Center for Cyber and Homeland Security at George Washington University. “You’ve got a question of political will, a question of capability, a question of capacity.”
Purported Paris attack mastermind Abdelhamid Abaaoud, who hailed from Molenbeek, traveled back and forth between Syria and Belgium, where he claimed God had chosen him “to terrorize the crusaders waging war against the Muslims.” Abaaoud also boasted of buying weapons and setting up a safe house in Belgium.
“All this proves that a Muslim should not fear the bloated image of the crusader intelligence,” Abaaoud said in an interview published in Islamic State’s in-house magazine, Dabiq, in February 2015, about eight months before the attacks on Paris.
Belgian Interior Minister Jan Jambon has complained about the fragmentation of Brussels’ police departments and said agencies have a tendency to hoard information for themselves.
“Brussels is a relatively small city, 1.2 million,” Jambon said at a Politico conference on extremism in November. “And yet we have six police departments. Nineteen different municipalities. New York is a city of [8 million]. How many police departments do they have? One.”
Times staff writer Pearce reported from Los Angeles and special correspondent Chad from Brussels.
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