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ISIS Recruiters Feed On Working-Class, Heavily Muslim Molenbeek


The terror attacks in Brussels last week killed at least 38 people, including the attackers. That's according to the Belgian Health Ministry. More than 300 were wounded. Many people are asking how this could've happened since police presence in the Belgian capital had been high since the Paris attacks in November. And the chief suspect in those attacks, Salah Abdeslam, was arrested in the Brussels neighborhood of Molenbeek. Neighborhoods like Molenbeek have been seen as fertile recruiting grounds for radical Islamist groups. In part, many experts say, because Muslim communities haven't integrated into the mainstream European society. NPR's Melissa Block has been reporting in Molenbeek, which has come to be known as the jihadi capital of Europe.

MELISSA BLOCK, BYLINE: It's just a quick walk from the center of Brussels with its gilded towers and shops selling fine chocolates and lace, a walk across a canal that used to be the industrial heart of the city and into a densely populated neighborhood lined with halal butchers and shops selling head scarves, hijabs. Molenbeek is a sprawling district, home to a large Muslim population mostly of Moroccan descent. It was also home to a number of the terrorists responsible for last week's suicide bombings in Brussels and the November attacks in Paris. And this is where I've come to find an entrepreneur named Ibrahim Ouassari.

IBRAHIM OUASSARI: I grew up in this house. It's the house of my father. So it's my area here, yeah.

BLOCK: Ouassari is 37, a second-generation Belgian, his parents from Morocco. He grew up next to the Molenbeek City Hall, not far from where two of the Paris attackers also lived.

OUASSARI: People think it's jihadi land here, you know? But it's really not like that. It's just some stupid people without a perspective for the future.

BLOCK: And that future can look bleak indeed. Parts of Molenbeek have a 50 percent unemployment rate. The Muslim community here is marginalized in ways large and small. Ibrahim Ouassari takes me back to the canal, a symbolic, psychological border between the two divided communities. He recalls crossing this canal to go to the Brussels City Center for the first time on his own when he was 16. And for the first time, he felt discrimination, felt like an outsider in his own country. In a cafe, someone told him, you 're not Belgian.

OUASSARI: It is like you're not really a Belgian guy, you know? It's a little bit like schizophrenia because in my mind I feel like Belgian guy. The other guy, he tell me, no, you are not. So what I am?

BLOCK: Ibrahim says his first name alone is an instant signal of identity. It even kept him from renting an apartment.

OUASSARI: I gave my name, Ibrahim. The guy he tell me no, it's not possible because we don't want Muslim.

BLOCK: ISIS recruiters have had an easy time finding foot soldiers in Molenbeek to join the fight. The recruiters feed on a population with few prospects for their future. Both Ouassari and his colleague, Morad Chahboun, know of young men from Molenbeek who have gone to fight in Syria. Chahboun tells me young professionals like him hope they can turn the Molenbeek narrative around.

MORAD CHAHBOUN: My feeling is that we are 99 percent the same. And though we think that our 1 percent different will lead us to kill their people, it's not the case. And definitely we try to change the perception on this.

BLOCK: I go to see Molenbeek's mayor, Francoise Schepmans, in her elegant, chandeliered office.

When you hear Molenbeek described as a jihadi capital, how does that strike you?

FRANCOISE SCHEPMANS: (Through interpreter) It's false, absolutely false.

BLOCK: But Schepmans does rattle off the names of the known terrorists from this neighborhood - Abdeslam, Abaaoud, Abrini - a web, she says, of people who knew each other from childhood, became delinquents, were radicalized, or as she puts it, contaminated together.

SCHEPMANS: (Foreign language spoken).

BLOCK: "That's the path," she says, "thugs, gangsters, radicals, terrorism." Last fall, a month before the Paris terrorist attacks, Belgium's federal office that coordinates threat analysis sent Schepmans a list of 80 residents of Molenbeek suspected to be Islamic militants. Local police did an investigation. And I ask her, what happened then?

SCHEPMANS: (Through interpreter) We transmitted that information to the federal police.

BLOCK: And then?

SCHEPMANS: (Through interpreter) That's up to the federal police to take care of. Everyone has their role. Everyone has their responsibility.

BLOCK: And that illustrates a problem that many here are furious about - dots that weren't connected before last Tuesday's attacks, siloed intelligence information, a fractured government divided into many parts that simply don't communicate with each other. Melissa Block, NPR News, Brussels. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.