The early days of December are traditionally a time to indulge in Christmas festivities – especially in Brussels, with the delights of the magnificent capital city of Europe. But not this year. The terrorist attacks in Paris on 13 November that killed 130 people have had a devastating effect on both celebrations and the business community of Brussels since French President François Hollande pointed a finger at Belgium as a source of this extremism. Brussels virtually came to a halt as a result as public transport, schools, universities and shops closed down and the public were advised to remain indoors.
Shortly after the lockdown was lifted, I was in Brussels for a meeting on EU migration and asylum policy addressed by Ireland’s Sophie Magennis of the UNHCR, now based in Brussels and formally head of the UNHCR in Ireland and administrator of the Irish Human Rights Commission.
The city had reopened, children had returned to school and shops were open, but almost empty. Soldiers were conspicuous on the streets and at the entrances to shopping malls, hotels and metro stations and trains. Tanks and army vehicles were situated among the Christmas market stalls. People were going to work and then straight back home for the evening. The mood was sombre, to say the least.
It has been claimed that the Paris terrorist attacks were masterminded in Brussels in the inner city neighbourhood of Molenbeek, just minutes north-east of the popular tourist centre, so I decided to take a visit on my last day in Brussels.
The sun was shining as I strolled on a December morning through the market and passed the town hall and police station, navigating busy narrow streets. The atmosphere was more relaxed here, and I saw no soldiers or police officers on the ground – a stark contrast to the heavily fortified tourist area of central Brussels, where a police dog handler with a large, menacing beast on a lead brushed past me at one point.
Molenbeek has been called a no-go area for the police, which may explain their apparent absence on the streets here. It’s one of the 19 municipalities of Brussels with a population of over 95,000 and has become known as a breeding ground for Islamic terrorism. It’s a visibly impoverished and overcrowded area, with high unemployment and poverty, unlike the residential areas to the south of the city where the more affluent have their homes.
The lower of the two distinct districts of Molenbeek consists of working class, mainly migrant communities, mostly of Turkish and Moroccan descent, with many being second and third generation. Over the past four decades, a substantial Muslim community of mainly Moroccan descent has established itself in the area.
Molenbeek has received criticism about combating Islamic terrorism and the radicalisation of young Sunni Muslims, and there have been concerns about links with the 2004 Madrid train bombing, the 2014 Jewish Museum of Belgium attack, and the shooting on the train between Belgium and France in August 2015. Brahim Abdeslam, his brother Salah Abdeslam, alleged accomplice Mohamend Abrini and the suspected mastermind of the Paris attacks, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, are all men who grew up and lived in Molenbeek. President Hollande claims that was also where they organised the attacks.
When I left Brussels almost two weeks after the Paris attacks, I began to ask myself whether the European city of culture, chocolate, lace and soccer, which hosts the headquarters of both the EU and Nato, has really become the centre of European terrorism.
Michael McGowan is a former MEP and president of the Development Committee of the European Parliament