Police Focus On Brussels Neighborhood Connected With Islamist Extremism
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Police continue to focus their attention on Molenbeek, a largely Muslim neighborhood in Brussels. It was home to at least two of the gunmen in the Paris attacks. The area has long been a magnet for criminal gangs and radical extremists and more recently for generating high numbers of foreign fighters going to Syria and Iraq. Earlier today, we reached Edwin Bakker. He's the director of the Center for Terrorism and Counterterrorism at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands. I asked him to describe the neighborhood.
EDWIN BAKKER: Well, Molenbeek is part of the larger city of Brussels with 100,000 inhabitants and most of them are from Arabic origin or North African origin. And it's a very segregated part of the capital of Belgium, Brussels.
CORNISH: What are some of the factors that have affected the neighborhood that has made it this potential breeding ground for violence?
BAKKER: Well, there's a geographical factor. It's in the heart of Europe. Brussels is the capital of Europe and it's at the fault line of many languages. And it's easy to get there. And the other thing is it's easy to hide there. The police doesn't have much influence. It doesn't have a good overview of what's happening. So it's an excellent place to organize and plot.
CORNISH: You talk about the police not having a good grasp on what's going on there. Talk more about that in terms of the security agencies and what might be complicating their ability to keep track of people going in and out of this community, to keep track of extremists.
BAKKER: Well, the most important thing is that police might not have invested enough in good relationship in that neighborhood. So they don't get much information out of that community. The other thing is that Brussels, as a city, is divided in 19 districts, of which Molenbeek is one. And there are six different police districts. And then there's - Belgium is a federal state with two different languages. People don't speak the language. People don't want to speak to each other. So it's very complicated.
CORNISH: Meanwhile, what about access to guns and weapons? How is that different in Belgium versus other places? Can you tell us a little bit about, I guess, the trade in arms there?
BAKKER: Yeah, Belgium is a relatively large arms producer and it has always had a relatively large black market. It's very difficult to buy guns in Europe. For normal citizens it's almost impossible. Even - you need to be involved in organized crime, but in Belgium - and especially Brussels and another town, Liege in Belgium, are known to be places where you can get these weapons.
CORNISH: One other factor here is about extremism and the idea of maybe extremists or radical mosque leaders or preachers operating in Belgium in this neighborhood. Is that something that Belgian authorities have ever, I guess, tried to address?
BAKKER: Well, they've given a lot of room to these extremists for a long, long time, until two years ago when they really cracked down on an organization called Sharia4Belgium. Now, that organization had links to France, but had also close links to Sharia4U.K. (ph) and was spreading the same ideology also to other countries - Sharia4Holland, et cetera. And fortunately, the Belgian authorities did try to crack down on that organization. They convicted quite a few people, also their leader. So there are signs of hope, but they take this seriously. But in the meantime, hundreds of Belgians are now fighting in Syria and Iraq. So much more needs to be done to deal with this phenomenon that has grown out of hand.
CORNISH: Edwin Bakker is the director of the Center for Terrorism and Counterterrorism at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands. Thank you so much for speaking with us.
BAKKER: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.