But as the Brussels district on the wrong side of the city’s post-industrial canal became a focus for police pursuing those behind Friday’s mass attacks in Paris, Belgian authorities are asking what makes the narrow, terraced streets of Molenbeek different from a thousand similar neighbourhoods across Europe.
Multiple themes emerge as Molenbeek is again in a spotlight of Islamist violence, home not just to militants among Belgium’s own 500,000 Muslims but, it seems, for French radicals seeking a convenient, discreet base to lie low, plan, and arm before striking their homeland across the border.
Security services face difficulties due to Belgium’s local devolution and tensions between the country’s French and Dutch-speaking halves; the country has long been open to fundamentalist preachers from the Gulf; and it has a thriving black market in automatic rifles. “With €500 to €1,000, you can get a military weapon in half an hour,” said Bilal Benyaich, senior fellow at Brussels thinktank the Itinera Institute.
“That makes Brussels more like a big US city” in mostly gun-free Europe, he said.
“Almost every time [terrorists attack Europe], there is a link to Molenbeek,” said centrist prime minister Charles Michel, 39, whose year-old coalition is battling radical recruiters who have tempted more than 350 Belgians to fight in Syria, relative to Belgium’s 11m, population, easily the biggest contingent from Europe.
However, the “preventive measures” of the past few months were not enough, Michel said, describing Molenbeek as a “gigantic problem” and saying: “There has to be more of a crackdown.”
Conservatives blamed lax oversight on left-wing predecessors, nationally and in Molenbeek town hall, and duelled over whether Dutch-speaking Flanders or mainly French- speaking Brussels and the south did more to curb the radicals.
Such differences, which have translated into a profusion of layers of government and policing in an effort to appease centrifugal forces that long threatened to break Belgium apart, have created problems for intelligence and security services.
“Belgium is a federal state and that’s always an advantage for terrorists,” said Edwin Bakker, professor at the Centre for Terrorism and Counterterrorism at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands.
“Having several layers of government hampers the flow of information between investigators.”
Given the difficulty of gathering intelligence in places such as Molenbeek, a borough of 90,000 where some neighbourhoods were up to 80% Muslim, any gaps in the information chain were problematic, said Bakker.
“In parts of Brussels there are areas on which the police have little grip, very segregated areas that don’t feel they’re a part of the Belgian state,” said Bakker.
“In such a case, it’s very difficult to get feedback from the community. That means while the neighbours may have seen something going on, they’re not passing it to the police. Then it becomes very tough for intelligence agencies as only relying on them and not local police is not sufficient.”
Political complication is also blamed for slowing the passing of new laws, for example to rein in the preaching of hate in mosques or recruitment for and travel to the Syrian war.
While some of Molenbeek’s old factories have made it a smart address for bohemian loft living, areas tumbling out from the ship canal, offering halal butchers, street stalls, and backstreet mosques are some of the poorest in northwest Europe.
The 25% jobless rate, rising to 37% among the young, is significantly higher than other parts of Brussels, also home to a thriving, cosmopolitan middle-class drawn by the EU institutions on the other side of the city.
Belgian officials are also increasingly concerned about the influence of radical versions of Islam.