Brussels blasts put focus back on Belgian capital’s terror hotbed

  • Agencies, Paris/Brussels
  • Updated: Mar 22, 2016 18:30 IST
An unidentified man believed to be connected to key suspect in the November 2015 Paris attacks Salah Abdeslam, is detained by police during a raid in the Molenbeek neighborhood of Brussels, Belgium. (AP Photo)

The blasts in the Brussels that killed more than 20 people on Tuesday has put the Belgian capital in the eye of the storm once again.

Belgium has been at the centre of the investigation into the Paris attacks of November 2015 almost from day one, and has been criticised for alleged blunders that let the perpetrators slip under the radar.

Four months on, Belgian police and magistrates are still piecing together the role Belgian nationals played in aiding the Paris attackers, who brazenly attacked cafes and restaurants, a noted concert hall and France’s main sports stadium on November 13, killing 130 people, as well as trying to track down missing suspects.

The capture of Salah Abdeslam, the 26-year-old top suspect in the deadly Paris attacks who evaded several close calls with police, on Friday in the neighbourhood where he grew up raises a cause of concern.

Read | Brussels metro, trams, buses, trains shut down post triple blasts

Abdeslam is a French citizen who lived in the Molenbeek neighbourhood of Brussels, the low-income quarter of mainly Moroccan immigrant families and home to most of the at least nine attackers. Abdeslam’s brother Brahim was one of the suicide bombers.

Brothers Brahim and Salah ran a family cafe in Molenbeek - which police closed down not long before the attacks on suspicion of drug dealing there.

The ringleader of the attacks, IS member Abdelhamid Abaaoud, was also from Brussels. He was killed in a raid in Paris in November.

Another of the Paris attackers, Bilal Hadfi, was last week buried quietly in the same cemetery as Abdeslam’s brother. Both had links to Molenbeek, which has been a hotbed of Islamist violence for decades.

Abdeslam, who evaded several close calls with police, is thought to have served as the logistics man, renting rooms, shopping for detonators and driving at least one of the killers from Brussels to Paris.

Read | In pics: Panic grips Brussels after string of explosions

Authorities had put out a request for Belgian-born Abdeslam in connection with the brazen Paris attacks, describing him as “dangerous” days after the attacks in Paris.

Embarrassed Belgium

Investigators hope Abdeslam’s arrest on Friday, in which he was slightly wounded in the leg, will generate new leads in the probe of the attacks which were claimed by the Islamic State jihadist group.

Belgian authorities have been embarrassed by the revelation that Abdeslam was found just around the corner from his family home in Molenbeek, and may have been aided by friends and family.

The top suspect in the Paris attacks told investigators after he was captured that he was planning new operations from Brussels and possibly had access to several weapons,

Days after the attacks, police had also identified two Islamic State attackers as French nationals living in Belgium. The two men, aged 20 and 31, were suicide bombers at the Stade de France and at a bar in the 11th district.

As the Belgian connection came to the fore, Premier Charles Michel had conceded that the Brussels neighbourhood was a “gigantic problem” given its past links to international terrorism.

Read | Brussels attack may bolster demand for strong borders within EU

Michel had said Belgium needed to crack down on radicalisation. “I do not want any preachers of hatred on Belgian soil! There is no place for them in Belgium,” he had said on Twitter.

The results of the probe so far highlight how Molenbeek has for two decades lodged Islamist extremists who have fought or supported wars in Algeria, Afghanistan and Bosnia as well as the current ones in Syria and Iraq, analyst Claude Moniquet said.

“It’s not the only one in Belgium, it is certainly not the only one in Europe, but it is a hotbed for jihadism,” Moniquet added.

Belgium as a whole has spawned nearly 500 jihadists for Syria and Iraq from a population of only 11 million, giving it the highest figure per capita in the European Union, security services said.

What is striking is that Belgium and more specifically Molenbeek remain a haven for jihadists despite the toughening of anti-terrorist legislation as well as the dismantling of recruitment networks and militant cells since the 1990s.

(With AP, AFP and Reuters inputs)

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