Saturday, March 19, 2016

19-Mar-16: An arrest in Belgium sharpens the focus on Europe-based jihad

Police raid in the Molenbeek section of Brussels, Belgium [Image Source]
Salah Abdeslam, the fugitive believed to be the only terrorist to survive after the savage Friday 13th Paris attacks last November, was captured by Belgian police on Friday.

They were tipped-off by a pizzeria owner whose suspicions were raised by an unusually large order: a "lucky break", a Politico analysis called it.

Three members of a family hiding him, named at this stage only as Abid A, Sihane A and Djemila M, have also been detained [The Independent, UK, today].

Abdeslam, it's thought, fled Paris immediately after the coordinated massacres ["14-Nov-15: The Friday 13th terror assault on Paris"] that took the lives of 130 people at the Stade de France, numerous cafés and restaurants and the Bataclan theatre in central Paris. More than 400 others were injured. He got back to Brussels, and successfully eluded a wide and urgent police search over the following months. In parts of the media, he came to be called "the most wanted man in Europe".

Today he was formally charged with "participation in terrorist murder". His lawyer says [The Guardian] he is "collaborating" with Belgian investigators and will fight extradition to France.

Abdeslam is 26, and described as a Belgian-born, French citizen of Moroccan ancestry. Associated Press calls him "a childhood friend of the suspected ringleader of the attacks... " Elsewhere, it is noted that a brother of Abdeslam's, Ibrahim, was one of the human bomb attackers at the Stade de France, and died there.

His apprehension
could give security and intelligence agencies an opportunity to interrogate Mr. Abdeslam about his ties to the Islamic State and how the attacks were planned and carried out, at a time when officials are saying that the Paris plot might have been larger and more elaborate than first thought. He was arrested three days after the police found his fingerprints in an apartment in another Brussels neighborhood. The authorities gave few details about how they had tracked him down, but the Belgian prosecutor’s office said it had also arrested three members of a family on charges of sheltering him... ["Arrested in Belgium, Suspect in Paris Attacks Plans to Fight Extradition", New York Times, March 19, 2016]
[Image Source: Bloomberg]
His arrest also gives hope to the victims of the Paris atrocities that a process focused on justice may happen. See this response from a French association of terror victims: "Communiqué du MPCT: Un espoir de justice pour les victimes du 13 novembre" (in French). The role of justice in the lives of terror victims is far too often an afterthought.

Molenbeek, the largely Muslim Brussels neighborhood mentioned in that report, and infamous for its crime and unemployment, is regarded (says AFP) as a "European hotbed of Islamist extremism" that "has long been a breeding ground for radicalism". In the week after the November massacres, Aljazeera, in an article headlined "A message from Molenbeek: 'We are not terrorists'", quoted Charles Michel, Belgium's prime minister, saying Molenbeek "was involved in almost every terrorist attack of recent years", and reporting that Jan Jambon, the Belgian interior minister, had pledged to "clean it up". In The Guardian, they called it "the Brussels borough becoming known as Europe's jihadi central".

A long and serious profile in The Atlantic during that same week described how
tiny Belgium has taken on an oversized role in the European theater of jihad. The country has provided a steady flow of fighters to ISIS in the Middle East... Belgium has just 11 million people, and Pew estimated that about 6 percent of the population was Muslim as of 2010. But Belgian and French nationals make up around a quarter of the Europeans who went to fight in Iraq in the mid-2000s... The central figure in Belgian militant Islamism is Fouad Belkacem, a 33-year-old preacher and founder of the group Sharia4Belgium. He was born in Belgium to Moroccan parents, and is a disciple of the British radical Islamist Anjem Choudary... Experts also say it is comparatively easy to acquire illegal guns in Belgium, making it an attractive base for operations... In particular, Belgian jihadism is concentrated in Molenbeek. It’s a neighborhood of nearly 100,000 people in Brussels, northwest of the city center, which has had a large Muslim population for many years. There are 22 known mosques in the district. Molenbeek shares some characteristics with the banlieues in French—densely populated, large immigrant populations, very high unemployment, complaints of inadequate government services, isolation from the central city and corridors of power... Interior Minister Jan Jambon added: “We don’t have control of the situation in Molenbeek at present.” ["What’s the Matter With Belgium?", November 17, 2016]
Unsurprisingly, the BBC report on the arrest manages, in its customary manner, to not mention the word "terror" once. (The suspect, it says, is wanted in connection with the "Paris attacks".) It quotes the French president Francois Hollande, speaking at a joint press conference with Belgium's prime minister Charles Michel saying he expected Abdeslam
to be extradited to France "as rapidly as possible" [and that] Abdeslam's arrest was an "important moment" but added that it was not the "final conclusion". "We must catch all those who allowed, organised or facilitated these attacks and we realise that they are a lot more numerous than we thought earlier and had identified," he said. [BBC, today]
Abdeslam is taken into custody [Image Source]
Who were those others and what might they have in common? Other sources, but strikingly not the BBC, offer answers. In fact, Hollande spoke of
"confirmed ties between the Paris attackers and Daesh [ISIS] and stressed that the current threat level is very high." [Sputnik, today]
In Molenbeek, meanwhile. there are reports today of ongoing tensions triggered by the arrests and the police activity:
Not only was access disrupted for locals but many are angry about the neighbourhood being labelled a breeding ground for Islamist violence. “They are tarring everyone with the same brush and forgetting that the Moroccan community, that has been here for 40-50 years, works really hard,” said Yacine, a young man from just outside Molenbeek. “To say that it is a jihadist hot-spot here, no! Look for them somewhere else!” [Euronews, today]
Plenty of photos and video clips of what the Express UK calls rocks and "missiles" being hurled at police.

And this from the Wall Street Journal:
Young Muslim men living in the district since the Paris attacks have expressed concern they may have trouble finding jobs because they fear potential employers could discriminate against them based on their Arabic names and because they are registered as living in Molenbeek... ["Brussels Neighborhood of Molenbeek Returns to the Spotlight", WSJ, today"]
 We fear they are right, but also that they are somewhat missing the point.

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