Brussels attacks: Trails of death and destruction all lead back to Molenbeek

Atrocities a harsh reminder that Islamic extremism has deep roots in parts of the Belgian capital

Police officers in Molenbeek last week, following Salah Abdeslam's capture
Police officers in Molenbeek last week, following Salah Abdeslam’s capture

The threat to Brussels was always there, but no one wanted to believe it. As the shaken Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel noted grimly, “What we feared, has happened.”

The attacks were a harsh reminder, in the heart of Europe, of the unforgiving nature of modern terrorism, as well as the sinister links between the Belgian capital and Islamic extremism.

The threat was certainly there the day after the Paris attacks on November 13, when Belgian police raided homes in the notorious Molenbeek district of Brussels. They had already connected the dots from Paris to Molenbeek which had long been known as an incubator for Islamic terrorists.

It was in Molenbeek, a poor, marginalised neighbourhood with a large Muslim population, that investigators believe the Paris plot was hatched by Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the Belgian-born son of an immigrant shopkeeper from Morocco.

Abaaoud was part of a web of Belgium-based foot soldiers, whose exploits have left a trail of death and destruction across Europe. And beyond, as well: around 500 young Belgians have gone to Syria to fight for jihadist groups like Isis. Compared to its population, no other European country has sent more foreign fighters.

Messages and floral tributes outside the Brussels stock exchange (AP)

Despite the long history of Islamist extremism in Belgium, until the Brussels atacks there were few attacks on Belgian soil. But there has been significant involvement in atrocities elsewhere. There are Belgian links to the murder of the Afghan anti-Taliban fighter Ahmed Shah Masoud – just before the September 2001 attacks in the US – and to the Groupe Islamique Marocain Combattant (GICM), which had a major role in the 2004 Madrid train bombings. In 2005, Muslim convert Muriel Degauque, became the first known female Western suicide bomber, when she blew herself up in Iraq.

The Belgian connection was laid bare in last year’s trial in Antwerp of Fouad Belkacem, the leader of the radical group Sharia4Belgium, which claimed to be an Islamic information network, but was actively recruiting fighters for Syria. It was the largest trial of its kind in the country: 44 other members of Sharia4Belgium were given sentences ranging between three and 12 years, although most of these were delivered in absentia, as those involved were in Syria.