With the myriad Islamist terrorist attacks occurring in Europe in recent years, it has become paramount to thoroughly analyse the underlying issues when trying to prevent future attacks. One of the most pervasive of these issues is the segregated communities that form within European societies and cities. Molenbeek in Brussels is a prime example of why these segregated communities can create significant issues within a country and become hubs of radicalisation.
The chief planner of the 2015 Paris attacks, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, lived in Molenbeek. Salah Abdeslam, one of the perpetrators of the 2015 Paris attacks, hid in Molenbeek before his arrest. Mohamed Abrini, a planner in the 2016 Brussels airport bombing, grew up in Molenbeek. In both attacks, 14 individuals involved either lived in Brussels or were from Belgium. Molenbeek was also home to one of attackers who perpetrated the 2004 Madrid train bombings, and to the man who shot four people at a Jewish Museum in Brussels in 2014.
The reasons behind why Molenbeek has produced so many terrorism perpetrators vary. Other such communities in Belgium, which have high rates of foreign born residents, Muslims and unemployment, have not produced nearly as many terrorists. In the 1970s, Gulf States, especially Saudi Arabia, began funding religious schools in Molenbeek as Belgium had begun taking in large numbers of Turkish- and Moroccan-born immigrants. Over the next few decades, the Wahhabi Clerics would heavily influence those in the area who had previously professed and adhered to a more moderate form of Islam. That, coupled with the unemployment and poverty rates in Molenbeek, which are 40% and 57% respectively, has perpetuated the formation of significant societal issues.
The nature of the Belgian state is also partly to blame for Molenbeek’s high rates of radicalisation. Belgium’s artificial birth in the 20th century, where it divided into separate areas of control in the forms of Flanders, Brussels and Wallonia, has resulted in poor governance and policing. This split has made policymaking difficult and arduous at the best of times, causing a slow response rate when issues need to be addressed in the community.
Other European countries are experiencing similar issues, including the segregation of certain communities. For example, the town of Luton, England is home to the infamous radical preacher Anjem Choudary of the Islamist group Al-Muhajiroun, and also gave birth to the far-right English Defence League (EDL). The 7/7 bombers caught the train from Luton into London and many who’ve joined Islamic State from England have come from Luton. Radicalisation is preventable, and the majority of Luton’s Muslim community want to see greater action and change.
The formation of these segregated communities creates a cycle that pushes many young and vulnerable people into the hands of both Islamists and far-right groups. Addressing the problem at its source—the funding of schools and religious centres by extremist groups, a lack of societal cohesion and proper policing in the area, and the ‘us vs. them’ attitude rife throughout these communities—would bring about necessary and very much wanted change, most likely resulting in a decrease in individuals linked to extremist groups. Fortunately, there’s a UK-based group attempting to do exactly that. Quilliam, which was formed by a former member of the Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir, seeks to form both counter-narratives and counter-terrorism policies.
There is a clear policy gap when looking at the myriad cities, towns and communities in Europe experiencing similar issues. The EU and its member states need to ensure that governance vacuums, like the one that formed in Molenbeek, do not continue to manifest and proliferate. The forces that lead to the formation of these communities work gradually, so addressing these issues in their infancy would undoubtedly lead to greater integration and change.
Jake Kay is undertaking a Bachelor Degree in International Relations at Curtin University.