A stocky Belgian man rode up to the city hall in Brussels on a camel, clad in a long Moroccan robe.
He dismounted and told the assembled journalists: “This is how it will look in the future in Belgium.”
The scene took place 30 years ago in Schaerbeek, a municipality in Brussels. The man was the district mayor at the time, Roger Nols, a right-wing populist. Aside from riding on a camel, one of his other political deeds was to ban shop signs written in any language other than Flemish or French.
“We know that some of our sons are up to no good, but we always hope they aren’t terrorists.”
Mr. Nols repeatedly called immigration an invasion, a threat to Belgian security. Were he alive today, he would think his worst prophecies fulfilled.
The attacks that shook the Belgian capital and killed at least 32 people last week were planned in this part of Brussels. Brothers Khalid and Ibrahim el-Bakraoui and their accomplice, Najim Laachraoui, knew each other from their hometown district. They had rented an apartment under assumed names not far from the train station in Schaerbeek.
On the fifth floor of Rue Max Roos number 4, they worked for months putting together bombs, fine-tuning the choreography of their acts of violence, and on the morning of March 22 ordered a taxi to take them from there to their target.
All of the men were children of Muslim immigrants. The Bakraoui brothers’ parents came from Morocco, as did those of Mr. Laachraoui.
Some, like Mr. Nols, might think that failed integration and terrorism go hand-in-hand.
But anyone spending a few days in Schaerbeek discovers a more complex reality.
Schaerbeek is a beautiful, peaceful neighborhood, its streets lined by narrow houses with colorful facades. Fresh vegetables are sold at the markets, and all types of cuisine is available in nearby restaurants. The area began to gentrify 10 years ago when students and artists moved in.
It isn’t clear why some young men become radicalized in Schaerbeek while others adjusted to life as an immigrant. The perpetrators of the attacks shared an extreme vision of their religion, but the Muslim faith obviously isn’t the only criteria.
Sitting at a small wooden table in a nice Moroccan teahouse is one of those bearded men some Schaerbeek residents worry about. They say helpers of terrorism don’t fire shots or blow themselves up, but rather keep watch, deliver messages, organize food, and above all, recruit new assassins.
These people, they say, help terrorism, ride bicycles through Brussels and keep on the lookout. They sit in cafés and observe the young men about them, looking for those who are damaged, hardened, stoned enough to fall for the narcotic concept of Jihadism that numb them to everything else, with nothing left to lose.
The lanky, bearded Islamist’s tea glass is still full but the beverage has been cold for a long time. He isn’t wearing a Moroccan robe as Mr. Nols once did, but rather a knitted sweater and over it a black imitation leather jacket. He has been talking for 15 minutes into a cheap clamshell cell phone. He appears to be responsible for initially taking care of the recruits.
“What should I do?” he asks in Arabic into the phone. Silence. “But they’re everywhere,” he says. A couple of hmms and other utterances follow, then he closes with: “Everything as always – only more carefully.”
The recruiting of future assassins, or else assistant terrorists, goes something like this: Petty criminals who supply the city’s European Union district with drugs or steal cars can be found on the streets, in the train stations, in betting shops, in front of brothels and naturally in prisons.
March 22nd’s attackers came out of this milieu. Those who have already been able to gain experience in dealing with Kalashnikovs, in matters of money laundering and in playing hide and seek with the police are given priority in the recruiting process. Their indoctrination can take a couple of months, more like years. A lot of things happen behind the closed doors of apartments. Even the neighbors don’t notice anything.
Such a short time after the attacks, those keeping an eye out for potential radicals appear a bit tense. These days police sirens form a kind of background melody. The bearded man in the teahouse snaps shut his cell phone, throws a two-euro coin on the table and takes off.
He senses he is being tailed by the reporter. There are a lot of secret service men on the move in Brussels. The bearded man is constantly looking around. After only a few steps, he meets two young Moroccans, each with a can of Jupiler beer in hand. The sense of a mission of an Islamist is stronger than the fear.
“Don’t you two know it’s Friday?” he scolds the beer-drinking vegetable salesmen. They respond: “Get out of here or we’ll f**k your mother’s religion, you damn bearded shitface!”
They sum up – coarsely formulated – the attitude of many residents of Schaerbeek about Islamist terrorists.
The bearded man looks at the men in shock and flees in the directions of the north train station, the only place that is truly unpleasant in Schaerbeek and even dangerous at nights because of drug dealing and massive prostitution.
That’s where that guy belongs, say the two young Belgians of Moroccan origin who are enjoying their beer after finishing work at the market, now that the dreary Belgian winter is gradually over. “There are idiots like that running around here all the time, unfortunately it isn’t too often that anybody gives them a piece of their mind,” says one of them.
The preliminary finding of the reporting done in Schaerbeek for this story is that the beer-drinking vegetable salesmen of Moroccan origin are the only ones who are neither afraid of Islamists nor have fallen for their jihad story. Actually, the salesmen are doing what these days many politicians have sworn to do, namely protect our values.
However, they are largely left alone doing it.
Mohamed El Arnouki cannot do much for his fellow citizens. The 46-year-old native of Schaerbeek, son of a Moroccan guest worker, is lay magistrate, or alderman, in the district and assistant to the mayor. He takes care of family policy and the city’s green spaces. “Schaerbeek has the most beautiful parks in Belgium,” he says.
His other area of responsibility is less gratifying. Every Thursday he receives desperate mothers in the ostentatious city hall, a gem of the Flemish Neo-Renaissance. The local Christian-Democratic politician listens to the concerns of the citizens in rooms with high ceilings and windows decorated with gold.
“Mostly they beg for an apartment or for work for their sons,” the alderman said. The most he can do for such requests is to pat the mothers reassuringly on the shoulders. There is as good as nothing in his district’s coffers. The average yearly income per household in Schaerbeek is €11,000 ($12,444).
There is only one other municipality in Brussels where the people are even poorer: Molenbeek.
“We know that some of our sons are up to no good,” explains a female resident in Molenbeek, who prefers to remain anonymous. “But we always hope they aren’t terrorists.”
Her friend, Djamila M., is the mother of Abdel Aberkan, a friend of the Abdeslam brothers: One blew himself up November 13 on a Paris street; his body was buried in Brussels’ Islamic cemetery. The other, Salah Abdeslam, is believed to be the sole surviving attacker from Paris. Apparently he hid out in Molenbeek for months.
When investigators got on Mr. Abdeslam’s trail, it was Mr. Aberkan who took him to Mr. Aberkan’s mother’s house, where the terrorist hid for a couple of days in the cellar.
Before the special forces stormed the house on March 18, Djamila M. stepped out the door, limping behind two heavily-armed, masked soldiers. There is a video of it. She is in a dark-green velvet overdress, and the security forces are in camouflage colors. Djamila M. is waving her arms around wildly, clutching her breast, hardly getting any air because of an illness. “What’s happened?” she is said to have been asking the soldiers.
Is it really possible to become an involuntary helper of terror? The police released the ailing Djamila M. under the provision that she not speak with the press. Her friend now does that for her: “Djamila is no terrorist mama.” Djamila M.’s friend swears by Allah that not all Molenbeekers are terrorists.
She says there is one, at most two, boys per extended family who lose the relationship to reality. Nevertheless, the families must stick together.
“The Belgians hate us – and the worst terrorists, like the Bakraouis, for example, were cast out by their families beforehand.”
You have to really watch anybody who has been in prison, she says, or you can give up on them straightaway. Sticking together is their contribution to de-radicalization. Many lost sheep are brought back into the fold this way.
For many people, expectations about the young men from Schaerbeek or Molenbeekistan, as a French newspaper called the district, are low. Apparently it is easier for some of the men at some point to adopt the attributes others give them. Everything that used to be in the abstract and vague at least then fits together, everything is less complicated, we against them, them against us, a world the way Roger Nols saw it.
There are a lot of police roadblocks these days that don’t produce reportable developments. Apartments and shops are being searched on every corner. People are being arrested and then let go shortly afterward. Reporters don’t interview people; they carry out cross-examinations. In the barbershops, the coin-operated laundries, the gambling halls, the grief, anger and helplessness mix together. There are endless discussions among residents about how best to react now – caught between terrorists and racists.
Should one drink tea and wait it out, as a majority of the people here are doing? Should one now make a special effort to get ahead? Like the majority here dream of doing? Should they hunt the terrorists themselves?
A couple of particularly brave boys in front of a laundry assert that they would like to slug the “ugly bearded piece of shit” in the face. Or would it be better to demonstrate one’s patriotism?
A couple of women have thrown Belgian flags over their shoulders. They want to commemorate the victims of the attacks and are marching with their children in hand in the rain in the direction of downtown. They are on foot because the subway is no longer running because of the attacks, and for people in Molenbeek, no other transport service exists to replace it.
Since March 22, the people of Brussels, and many tourists as well, have been coming together on Place de la Bourse. The people have scrawled their messages of solidarity and peace on the ground. Here and there among such messages are comments like “Get out, you Moroccans” in Flemish, “Belgium for the Belgians” in French, and “Allahu Akbar” in Arabic. In the center are flags from different nations, burned-out candles and wilting flowers. Spontaneous chains of people constantly form. People stand in silence, sing, clap.
A poet, who presents himself as a Belgian of Moroccan descent, intones a poem. The people of Brussels listen, lower their heads, and a couple of tears roll down the faces.
Belgium is fries, chocolate, and freedom
Belgium, that is the police who protect us
And the police who beat us
Belgium, that is the inhuman assassins
And the racists who create the assassins
Belgium is when a Belgian woman asks me
Why we Moroccans do such things
And she doesn’t notice what is actually going on
Nothing rhymes in this poem. Nothing at all.
Behind the story
For our research, we spoke with two dozen people living in Molenbeek and Schaerbeek. Most of them didn’t want their names to appear in the paper out of fear of terrorists and of being stigmatized. The references to the recruiter in the teahouse came from several people living nearby. Some said they had spoken to the police about him.