It is called Molenbeek, and it is a community with a problem.
The train bombings in Madrid in 2004; the killing of four people at the Brussels Jewish Museum in 2014; in 2015, the foiled shooting on a high-speed train, the anti-terrorist raid in the eastern Belgian town of Verviers, the attack on a Paris kosher supermarket, and last November’s attacks on the French capital — all had some connection to Molenbeek, a Brussels neighborhood that has been dubbed “Jihad Central” and a terrorist “base camp” by the media.
For its upcoming hourlong documentary investigation into extremism in Europe, Fusion’s investigative team traveled to Molenbeek to sift the facts from the myths. What we found was a hotbed of Islamic radicalism — and little hope for a better life among neighborhood residents, many of whom are Belgian immigrants of North African descent.
“It’s sometimes a different world,” local journalist Hind Fraihi, a Molenbeek resident and a Belgian Muslim of Moroccan descent, told us. “It’s an enclave.”
Tuesday morning’s attacks in Brussels rocked the world, but Belgium’s problems with religious radicalism are not new. Per capita, the country has sent far more fighters to Iraq and Syria than any other nation in the EU. Many came from Molenbeek.
Neighborhood residents are out of work, treated as second-class citizens in their adopted homeland. Molenbeek is one of Belgium’s poorest areas, with a youth unemployment rate of 40 percent.
“When my son was searching for a job, they said to him, ‘You are [Moroccan],'” Geraldine, a Molenbeek resident, told us of her 18-year-old son, Anis. “He said ‘No, I’m Belgian. I am born in Belgium.’ ‘Yes, but your origin, you are [Moroccan].'”
That isolation breeds resentment among young men in Molenbeek — and provides a fertile recruiting ground for militant radicals. After finishing school and remaining unemployed, Anis turned to his religion and eventually left Molenbeek to join ISIS.
“Are you satisfied with the life you lead, a humiliating life, whether you are in Europe, in Africa, in Arab countries or in America?” went the pitch from Fouad Belkacem, a 32-year-old Islamic radical who is currently serving a 12-year prison sentence for his work as the spokesman of the banned terror group Sharia4Belgium. “Are you satisfied with this life, with this life of humiliation?”
Belkacem used Molenbeek as a base of recruiting operations.
It is not yet clear whether the attackers responsible for Tuesday’s Brussels killings were connected to Molenbeek. But there’s no question that the residents’ isolation will continue, possibly even worsen, and the terrorist recruiting will go on.
“Someone approaches a youngster on the street with a story, a big story of idealism, with a mixture of Islam, then he can be very easily seduced,” Hind said.
What can change that? Only providing greater hope for the young men of Molenbeek, Geraldine told us.
“They are the future of the Belgium,” she said. “So give them the opportunity to become the future of Belgium.”
To learn more, watch The Naked Truth: Radicals Rising, Fusion’s hourlong investigative documentary on right-wing and Islamist extremists battling for Europe, on Sunday, March 27 at 8 p.m. EDT on Fusion.