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There's No Easy Way to Combat Radicalization in Belgium

The Belgian government's counter-terrorism efforts have long been condemned as ineffective and counterproductive. Some groups are trying a softer approach of integrating diverse communities to prevent further alienation and extremism.
Tribute messages to victims of Brussels terror attacks. (Photo by Yoan Valat/EPA)

In the aftermath of the Paris terror attacks, Canadian lawyer Jamil Jivani felt a pull towards Molenbeek, the Belgian neighborhood known as the heart of Europe's jihadist problem. He wanted to see how the community that had produced some of the suspected perpetrators of the November bombings and mass shootings would pick up the pieces, and prevent more young people from falling prey to radical ideologies.


That's where he was on Tuesday morning, as sirens wailed through the Brussels district, one of the city's poorest, and residents who had a few days earlier seen police swarm and capture the outstanding Paris attacker braced for another raid.

"When everyone here learned of the attacks at the airport and subway, you could sense a new wave of panic," Jivani said in a phone interview from Brussels.

For the last month, he's been observing youth groups at work there, hoping to learn how their approaches might be brought back home.

The Islamic State has claimed responsibility for the bombings in the Belgian capital on Tuesday that left at least 34 people dead and hundreds more injured, the worst terrorist attack the country's ever seen. Two suspected suicide bombers have been identified as Belgian brothers Khalid and Ibhrahim el-Bakraoui. Police are still hunting for the remaining perpetrators.

While we don't yet know if the attacks are tied to the neighborhood, the world is once again glaring at Molenbeek, one of Belgium's poorest districts with high unemployment rates and a predominantly Muslim population. The community of around 90,000 is often referred to as the "heart of jihadism" in Europe because it has been home to a number of jihadis, including Salah Abdeslam, who have planned or carried out terror attacks across Europe, from the 2004 train bombings in Madrid to the 2014 shootings at the Jewish museum in Brussels.


"For the people there, what happened today is obviously a tragedy," said Jivani, who traveled to Brussels from Toronto last month to observe how social workers, youth groups, and government officials are trying to combat radicalization. "At the same time they know they're going to face blame for it. The tragedy is going to be turned onto them. They're fearful over what just happened, but also over what comes next."

Explosions reported at — Pieter Van Ostaeyen (@p_vanostaeyen)March 22, 2016

He's already heard from a number of young people and activists who are bracing for renewed police crackdowns and further alienation.

At this crucial juncture in the country's fight against terror, Jivani says outsiders might be surprised at how hard community groups in Molenbeek and around the country have been working to integrate diverse communities and prevent further alienation and extremism. The Belgian government's counter-terrorism efforts have long been condemned as ineffective and counterproductive.

Related: Belgium's Deputy Prime Minister Says the Brussels Attacks Don't Justify Mass Surveillance

And so, Belgian politicians responded to the Paris attacks forcefully, vowing, as Interior Minister Jan Jambon did, to "clean up" Molenbeek and "eradicate" the problems there once and for all. The prime minister claimed that his government had already "tried prevention."

"Now we'll have to get repressive," he said. "It's been a form of laissez-faire and laxity. Now we're paying the bill."


The government made good on that promise with its $332 million counterterrorism plan unveiled in February that includes hiring 1,000 more police officers and beefing up the country's domestic surveillance program over the next three years.

Related: The 'Heart of Jihadism' in Europe is More Complicated Than You Think

But it's important that community organizations and young people themselves become an integral part of rooting out radicalization, said Jivani, who has organized youth engagement programs in Toronto communities with high crime rates.

"The youth workers and community leaders I've spoken with have said that things have actually been getting better lately because now people are paying attention to them. For years, they were trying to get law enforcement and government to take them seriously, but no one was listening, there was no partnership," he said.

Jivani described recent initiatives in the area that aim to train young people and encourage them to work with peers from different districts in the city to organize sporting events, tutoring, and improv groups. In particular, there's JES, a youth center doing this sort of work, that's been increasing the number of young people it works with.

Still, as Belgium's terror alert remains at the highest level and images of the bloody aftermath of the bombings are all over social media, it's easy to question the effectiveness of these efforts.


And Bart Schuurman, a terrorism researcher at Leiden University in the Netherlands, says there hasn't been enough evaluation of efforts to stem radicalization to know whether they work at all.

"We have to be realistic, many jihadist networks have connections to Molenbeek, it's clear something is definitely going on there," he said. "It's great that community groups are getting involved in this … But if we don't evaluate them, we don't have any basis for making value judgments."

There also hasn't been enough research on what draws people to extremist groups and ideologies in the first place. "We still have a long way to do from understanding this process," he said. "For example, research has failed to show a direct link between being poor and being uneducated and being involved in terrorism."

Fighting off the stigma of being 'terrorist capital': hundreds in — Kai Kuestner (@KuestnerK)November 18, 2015

On top of that, he said that Belgium and other Western nations can only do so much to influence the source of radical ideologies coming out of Syria and Iraq, "We have to acknowledge we can't fix these problems, at most we can try to alleviate them or prevent further attacks that have been happening."

"At the very least, working with community is going to give insight into what people are dealing with there. It's also a way of intelligence gathering, for lack of a better phrase, and keeping an eye at the local level can be crucial to finding out whether people are involved with criminal activities."

Jivani stressed that this work is relatively new and still being developed, so it's impossible to expect change quickly.

"What's at stake at this moment in Belgium is something big," he said. "It's whether this society becomes more inclusive or whether more ammunition is given to our enemies who want these young people to feel like they don't belong and hate it here."

Follow Rachel Browne on Twitter: @rp_browne