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The municipality of Molenbeek has acquired unfair international notoriety as the capital of international terrorism, a place teeming with jihadists who do not even allow police patrols to enter certain areas.
Because of the links of several of the jihadists behind the Paris and Brussels terror attacks, this is a convenient assumption to make, although not quite true. The area has historically seen waves of immigrants, starting with Italians who came to work in the coalmines immediately after the war (the subject of a book called Sold for a Bag of Coal by Belgian-based Italian journalist Marie Laura….).
Working class district no longer
Today the municipality, once called the ‘Manchester of Belgium,’ is no longer the working class district it once was. Just a stop away from the centre of Brussels, Molenbeek is still overwhelmingly immigrant. Deprivations abound, reflected in its 30 per cent unemployment rate. However, the notion that it is the nerve-centre of international jihadism has been unfair to the area and to its weary citizens.
Molenbeek’s residents are tired of invading groups of journalists in the wake of the March 22nd bombings in Brussels. Their reluctance to talk only reinforces the notion that they are somehow sympathetic to the jihadist cause. There is mild tension in the activity in the shops and roadside stalls that line the narrow streets of the locality and the tall and neglected buildings that tower over life below.
Many of the Paris attackers from here
Several of the jihadists, who participated in the Paris killings last November, are from here or had links here. Saleh Abselam, who was recently arrested by the Belgian police, and his brother Ibrahim (who blew himself up in Paris) come from here, as did Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the mastermind of the Paris attacks who was later killed by the French police.
A participant in the Charlie Hebdo attacks bought his arms in Molenbeek, and Mehdi Nemmouche, who killed four at the Jewish Museum in Brussels last year reportedly spent time here. The suicide bombers who blew themselves up in Brussels, the brothers Khalid el-Bakraoui and Ibrahim el-Bakraoui, and Najim Laachraoui did not grow up in Molenbeek though they would have frequented the area. And the list goes on.
Belgian authorities’ claim
Belgian authorities say a large number of the 500 Jihadists who travelled to Syria to fight are from here, although their claims are no more accurate than that.
“Do 500 jihadists in a population of 95,000 suggest that the whole area is sympathetic to them?” asks Karim Bazah, the owner of a successful organic Italian restaurant in Molenbeek. “Molenbeek is a very warm community where people socialize. These people are one of a kind and they do not follow Islam. They are psychologically damaged,” said Farah, a student from Molenbeek.
Jihadism due to lack of avenues?
Of far greater concern is how and why the radicalization process takes place. “This is something we cannot understand, especially the parents of these people,” said Mr. Bazah. He attributes the overnight transformation of boys who are entering manhood, from wild youths to jihadists to a lack of avenues for them.
“At this crucial moment in their lives, these boys need praise and attention. If they don’t get it in schools and in the family, they will seek it from a jihadist network,” he said.
Or, is it personal?
Religion does not seem to the only driver of jihadism. Quoting Marc Trévidic, a French judge specialising in anti-terrorism cases, Rik Coolsaet from the Royal Institute of International relations, writes : “Ninety percent of those who leave, do it out of personal reasons: they are looking for a fight, or for adventure, or revenge, because they do not fit in society.