Connected to ISIS

BRUSSELS — Just across the canal from the chic cafes, businesses and elegant buildings that define the heart of Belgium’s capital is the neighborhood of Molenbeek, a largely Muslim area that has become one of the world’s main breeding grounds of violent Islamist extremists.

Belgian police conducted raids in the area Saturday night and early Sunday morning and arrested seven people suspected of knowledge or involvement with the bloody attacks in Paris, which would not be the first time that people from Molenbeek have taken part in international terrorism. 

A Belgian car used by the attackers led police to Molenbeek, where they arrested one of three brothers; a second brother was killed in Paris, and a third is the target of a massive manhunt.

“The terrible attacks that were directed against us on Friday were prepared abroad by a group of individuals based in Belgium who, as the investigation will show, benefited from accomplices in France,” French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said in Paris on Sunday.

“There is almost always a link with Molenbeek. That’s a gigantic problem of course,” Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel said on Belgian television Sunday morning. 

Asked why his government wasn’t doing more, he said it “has already taken a number of initiatives at the preventive level. But in addition, there needs to be more repression.  We’re going to work hard on that.”

For the casual stroller, there is nothing about Molenbeek that shouts extremism.

It has a busy commercial street, alluring pastry shops, dilapidated car repair joints and corner cafes where, on Sunday, men (and only men) watched a soccer game on large-screen televisions while sipping tea and coffee. 

Some down-and-out residents sat outside the closed doors of a large church, but many of the Moroccans and Turks who emigrated half a century ago have become comfortably middle class, if not wealthy. 

And thanks to low property values, gentrification has planted its feet along the canal, featuring art lofts, a trendy event space and even a hotel.

However, Molenbeek also has unemployment perhaps as high as 30 or 40 percent and an average income that lags far behind Belgium overall. It has more than its share of seedy blocks, shabby homes and bad schools. 

More important, perhaps, the neighborhood stands in sharp contrast with the nearby wealthier residents of Brussels. And it is a 45-minute walk and a world away from the formidable buildings that are home to the European Union, a trip virtually no one from Molenbeek ever makes.       Read more

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