Soon after the November 13 Paris attacks, investigators in several countries began zeroing in on Belgium in their hunt for the perpetrators. After Tuesday’s attacks on the airport and a metro station in Brussels, there are growing fears the city is now at the front lines of the jihad in Europe.
The quaint city of 1.1 million is the seat of the European Commission and was, till now, best known for its waffles, chocolates and beer.
But not any more. Brussels also has the working-class borough of Molenbeek, described by the Guardian as the “source of the highest concentration in Europe of jihadi foreign fighters going to fight in Syria and Iraq and returning battle-hardened and determined to take their fight to the capitals of Europe”.
The International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation, part of King’s College London, has estimated Belgium supplies some 40 fighters for every million inhabitants – a figure more than four times that of Britain, and twice that of France.
And Molenbeek has been linked to spectacular attacks round the globe going as far back as the 2001 assassination of the Northern Alliance leader Ahmad Shah Massoud.
Days after the Paris attacks that killed 130 people, a French national who drove one of the cars used in the assault was arrested in Molenbeek. On March 18, key suspect Salah Abdeslam was arrested from a home on Rue de Quatre Vents in the heart of Molenbeek.
Reports following Abdeslam’s arrest have suggested his accomplices who are still at large – 24-year-old Najim Laachraoui and 31-year-old Mohamed Abrini – are capable of carrying out deadly assaults. Laachraoui had gone to Syria in 2013 and his DNA was found on several suicide belts used by the attackers in Paris, according to media reports.
Experts have also been struck by the fact that third and fourth generation Belgians have been recruited by groups such as the Islamic State – a reflection of the lingering sense of alienation among the country’s Muslims.