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Molenbeek back in the spotlight as Paris terror trial begins

Residents of Molenbeek, Brussels, go about their daily lives (BELGA IMAGE)
10:06 10/09/2021

After the terrorist attacks in Paris in November 2015, the Brussels district of Molenbeek became the centre of an unprecedented media storm as it became clear that the municipality was used as the hub from which the attackers planned their atrocity.

A multitude of deradicalisation projects followed as the authorities, in cooperation with projects on the ground, looked to root out the problem at its source. Almost six years later, many of these projects no longer exist and many have shifted their focus away from tackling radicalisation to address more general issues concerning the youth of Molenbeek.

The trial of 20 men accused of involvement in the Paris attacks, including Salah Abdeslam, who prosecutors say is the sole surviving attacker, began on Wednesday in the French capital. The trial has again turned the spotlight on Molenbeek where several of the terrorists lived, including Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the suspected lynchpin behind the Paris attacks, Salah Abdeslam and his brother Brahim, one of the suicide bombers who blew himself up outside a Paris café. As a result, the international media has once again returned to Molenbeek, only to find the commune has experienced a shift in attitude.

"Today ZDF comes along, tomorrow France 24,” says Bachir M'Rabet, a youth work coordinator at the Foyer intercultural centre in Molenbeek. “They all want to know what the situation is with regard to radicalisation in Brussels. I tell them like it is: here too, life goes on. Young people who have experienced it are tired of talking about it. Other children don't always understand it and sometimes even ask me if they should feel guilty now."

In the aftermath of the attacks, Foyer was one of the organisations which sought to understand and help those young people who were exposed to radicalisation or grooming by certain groups. It was a time when large numbers of young Belgian Muslims were heading to Syria to fight for and be trained by radical groups. Belgium — with a population of just 11 million — once had the highest number per capita of militants fighting in Syria and Iraq.

At the time, Foyer’s programme on media literacy was focused on showing the youth of Molenbeek the power of distorted messages and images on social media and on the news. The education programme helped many to understand how to navigate the minefield of fake news which had sprung up and was being used by both radical and mainstream outlets.

Today, however, the focus is less on radicalisation but more on the problems surrounding media literacy among young people in general. "We point out problems to the young people regarding fraud, paedophilia and other issues that they may face on the internet,” says Bachir M'Rabet. “But we also notice that young people today are less naïve than they used to be, they are more vigilant. They have seen horrific images from here and from in Syria. Social workers and teachers talk about this kind of thing more often and young people themselves communicate about it more openly. There is no need for a systematic focus on radicalisation: that would encourage paranoia."

Foyer is not the only organisation where the emphasis has become less on radicalisation. In the aftermath of the Paris attacks, such a jumble of projects on radicalisation arose that the Belgian anti-terror watchdog OCAD decided in 2017 to set up a knowledge centre to gain more insight into all programmes. Although an update of the list is still being worked on today, a survey shows that many of these projects have ceased to exist. In 2016, for example, the Flemish government also supported three Brussels organisations to prevent radicalisation, including Circus Zonder Handen and Groep Intro. Neither indicates that they are still actively working on radicalisation today.

"It may come up again when it comes to the guidance of young people, but there is no longer a targeted programme," says Annemie Van den Hende, Brussels coordinator of Groep Intro. "The government no longer focuses on this, and the methodology has now also been established. There's also less chatter around it within our visitors."

The decision of the municipality to also take a broader view within the Molenbeek prevention service is also indicative of the evolution. "Since the previous deradicalisation officer left, we have focused on a different profile,” a municipality spokesperson said. “The new head of our prevention service is a manager who oversees the various responsibilities of this service, such as drug prevention, rather than someone who focuses on radicalisation."

Ali Benabid is a psychosocial worker and coordinator of the Molenbeek Move team, a collection of prevention groups and youth associations. "The period of the attacks sent a big shockwave through our municipality," he says. "We immediately set up a cell to help and inform people."

"But the work has changed a lot today. Instead of working on radicalisation, we focus more on mental health in general. The vision was expanded because there is now more doubt about one's own future possibilities. We want to address that vulnerability. We see a lot of polarisation popping up here and distrust of the government and the media. Instead of focusing on deradicalisation, we want to make sure that people on both sides of the discussion are given the means to understand each other."

Alice Dobrynine of the Schaerbeek prevention service also notes that an evolution has taken place. "Immediately after the attacks, there was of course a lot to do around deradicalisation. But that sounds too simple, as if you can press a button and then you are freed from the disease," she says. "That's why we switched to projects around prevention and are now mainly fighting polarisation and other mental health issues."

Dobrynine indicates that the prevention service is much better organised today. "Over the years, new insights have been gained about psychosocial processes. Every two months we still hold a meeting and discuss any signals from the neighbourhoods where the climate may be tense. That's what they're going to do. But we don't use the word deradicalisation anymore. There is currently little change in the figures for departure or arrival of, for example, Syrian fighters."

The fact that there are fewer deradicalisation projects is a good thing, according to anti-radicalisation expert Montasser AlDe'emeh. "It's a silly concept. We don't even know what radicalising is. The term has never been defined. So how should we be able to do deradicalisation?"

AlDe'emeh has more faith in the small-scale projects that are carried out on the ground around prevention. "Often these are people who are very vulnerable. At a certain moment they find 'like-minded people', as it were, but after a while they see that this does not make sense. That is why prevention and emancipation on the ground are so important: these projects can ensure that someone does not go too far.

“The problem, however, is that politicians are, as it were, opposing these projects. For example, they do not always send the money to the people who also have expertise in the field, such as Foyer. Moreover, with their polarising language, they ensure that people will never reach the point that they feel at home somewhere. They give people even more of a sense of alienation, something a job alone won't solve."

"With the subsidies around deradicalisation, politics has also done a lot of window dressing," AlDe'emeh adds. "While the real breeding ground is still there. Have unemployment and poverty disappeared from Brussels? No, that has only gotten worse because of corona."


Written by Nick Amies