Alienation grows in Brussels district
that bred Paris attackers
Send a link to a friend
[June 01, 2016]
By Alissa de Carbonnel
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - When Moroccan-born
former boxer Mohamed Idrissi orders a young man out of his gym for
smoking, the respect is tangible.
The youngster stubs out his cigarette and leaves, head bowed.
Inside the gym, the muted thud of leather gloves striking punchbags
Idrissi's influence goes beyond his job as a coach at the Brussels
Boxing Academy, near the Molenbeek district of the Belgian capital
where Islamist militants, several of them of Moroccan origin,
planned last year's deadly Paris attacks.
He also has an informal role mentoring youths facing what Reuters
interviews with local officials, social workers and residents of
Molenbeek suggest is a growing feeling of alienation and
increasingly tense relations with police.
Building trust in communities such as Molenbeek is seen by police as
vital for gathering intelligence and countering the threat of
Islamic State, and respected local figures like Idrissi have a part
"Boxing is a philosophy which I tell them to apply in life," Idrissi
said of his young boxers at the gym in a primary school in central
Brussels, across an industrial-era canal from the halal shops, tea
parlors and mosques of Molenbeek.
"I tell them: 'You have to fight to be Belgian'," said the
34-year-old, who deserted from the Moroccan military police a decade
ago while taking part in a boxing competition.
Since the Nov. 13 bloodshed in Paris, security has been tightened in
Molenbeek, a district described by its own mayor as a "breeding
ground" for violence, and many Muslims say they feel stigmatized.
Idrissi is angered by frequent police checks of people with Moroccan
roots which he sees as racial profiling although police deny this.
But he bites his tongue in the presence of young men to avoid
repeating "the kind of comments we warn parents can feed into their
Some parents, he says, have turned to him to talk their sons out of
plans to join Islamist militants in Syria. Police also visited the
gym this year as part of a program to improve their image with
At least five men who trained there have traveled to Syria. One,
Ayoub Bazarouj, was detained in December on suspicion of having
links to the Paris attacks, in which 130 people were killed. He was
released in January without charge.
Another, Ahmed Dahmani, was arrested in Turkey last year on
suspicion of scouting out sites for the militant strikes. Police
released a photograph of Dahmani at the gym, holding his fists up as
if ready to throw a punch at the camera. Belgium asked for his
extradition from Turkey earlier this year.
Idrissi declined comment when asked about his interaction with
police over some of his young charges going to Syria.
A failure to stop the militant cell behind the Paris attacks from
carrying out more bombings -- 32 people were killed in bombings on
the Brussels metro and at the city's international airport on March
22 -- has highlighted the police lack of knowledge of Molenbeek and
their few ties with its residents.
The police are also hard pressed to overcome the fear of IS that
discourages possible informants. One resident, Hawa Keita, has
received death threats since informing on the network that enticed
her son to Syria and says: "We live in fear."
Having eyes on the ground is vital for plugging the intelligence
gaps, many officers say.
"It's not enough to bug phones: you need to know what you are
listening for," Andre Jacob, a former head of Belgium's State
Security agency, the Surete de l'Etat.
As in similar communities across Europe, Belgian police are
struggling to build bridges with young Muslims at the same time as
they hunt for militants. They have carried out dozens of raids and
arrests in Belgium in recent months.
The Interfederal Centre for Equal Opportunities (UNIA), an advocacy
group which also works with police on rights issues, says the number
of calls to its hot lines complaining about alleged abuse by police
has jumped since the Paris attacks.
[to top of second column]
Former Moroccan boxer Mohamed Idrissi trains a woman at the Brussels
Boxing Academy, Belgium, April 22, 2016. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir
Its director, Patrick Charlier, witnessed what he called latent
Islamophobia in workshops his organization conducted with police
before the Paris attacks. Such sentiment, he suggests, is now out in
"We all of a sudden had a number of cases (of complaints against
police)," Charlier said, but declined to give figures, saying it was
too soon to assess.
Residents in Molenbeek are angered by some of the comments made
about the Muslim population in Belgium, including the interior
minister's suggestion that many Muslims danced in celebration after
the Brussels bombings. [nL5N17L13C]
"Being rejected, relegated to trash schools, it's not surprising it
ends in bombs," said 48-year-old Milodi Rahma. "We are doubly
victimized: victims of IS and of Islamophobia."
"US AND THEM"
Belgium has announced a 39-million-euro ($44 million) plan to
improve police coordination in Brussels, including boosting staff in
Molenbeek for the first time in two decades. The district now has an
eight-person unit, whose task is to prevent radicalization.
But tight budgets means police can end up wearing two hats.
"One day they're taking part in a big violent raid and the next
they're supposed to go out and chat," said Vincent Gilles, who heads
the Belgian police union. "A community policeman needs to be seen
... as a partner, not an enemy."
The suspicion cuts both ways in Molenbeek, where the IS cell spent
months planning the Paris carnage and where one suspect, Salah
Abdeslam, hid with what many officers believe was the blessing of
"You can't tell me no one knew where he was," said Kris Vanstraeten,
a police inspector in the area.
When police did find him, some youths hurled glass bottles and
insults at them.
Molenbeek mayor Françoise Schepmans, who made her comment about the
district of 95,000 being a nest of violence two days after the Paris
attacks, says the police have a difficult role and relations are as
good as they can be.
"It's there to handle security, not to babysit," she said.
But she says too few police know the areas where they operate. Of 50
federal officers sent to work in Molenbeek after the March bombings,
none was even from the capital.
"Sometimes we have young policemen who arrive and say 'Uh-oh, where
am I?'," said local police spokesman Johan Berckmans.
Acknowledging that breaking down barriers was difficult, he said:
"It's always a question of 'us and them'."
(Additional reporting by Alastair Macdonald, Editing by Timothy
[© 2016 Thomson Reuters. All rights
Copyright 2016 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published,
broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.