BRUSSELS, Belgium—Salah Abdeslam, the only surviving perpetrator of the Paris attacks in November, and his brother Ibrahim, one of the suicide bombers that day, were no strangers to law enforcement. Long before November 13, 2015, the brothers had had dealings with the police force in their home neighborhood of Molenbeek, as had a number of the others involved in the Paris and Brussels attacks.
“We knew them well here,” says Johan Berckmans, a Molenbeek police commissioner. They had been arrested for minor infractions, including drugs. “But between that and becoming radicalized and blowing yourself up, you need something else. Particularly among the police officers who knew them, there was an incomprehension; is it really possible?”
“They were normal guys. They were up to no good and some were involved in petty criminality… but how can it be that they did this?”
After such things happen, it is easy to speak about what should have been done, as though the process of radicalization were a science and could be measured and prevented as such. But the disconcerting thing for many in law enforcement is that there are plenty of young people with whom they interact on a daily basis who display the so-called warning signs associated with dangerous radicalization, without ever coming close to doing what the Abdeslam brothers did. There is just no way to know for sure who are the ones you need to worry about.
It’s clear from the moment I walk into his office that Berckmans cares deeply about the community in which he works. Concerned, perhaps, that I might have believed some of the portrayals in the media of Molenbeek as an outpost of Raqqa, Syria, he asks me first to consider the history of the neighborhood. Berckmans is a native Flemish speaker and not from any of the local minority communities, but having worked in Molenbeek since 1989, he has seen it go through many changes, and is anxious that the area and its inhabitants not be misunderstood.
Discrimination against this community is not new. In March, German reporter Mohamed Amjahid found an archival photograph of Roger Nols, a 1987 political candidate who rode through the neighboring community of Schaerbeek, of a similar demographic make-up on a camel (not a dromedary, which is the species found in North Africa) wearing a Moroccan jelbab, warning constituents that this is what their neighborhood could look forward to if they did not elect him and put a stop to it.
In more recent times, there has been a population boom in Molenbeek. According to Berckmans, between 2002 and 2015, there was an increase of 15,000 inhabitants, which has put pressure on the school system, decreasing the quality of education. Coupled with rampant discrimination in the job market, that has spelled hard times for the community. It’s been difficult for the local administration to keep up with the changes. The same goes for law enforcement.
Failure to cooperate and share information among the Belgian security forces has been widely cited in the media as a reason why the attacks were not prevented. But Berckmans points out that the threats and tactics are relatively new, and police are struggling to keep up.
“In terms of radicalism, for the police it’s something fairly new. Five years ago, we hardly talked about radicalism.” But following the wars in Afghanistan and Syria, he says that he and his colleagues had noticed that a minority of people in the neighborhood seemed to have more conservative religious ideas than before.
In 2013 and 2014, a number of people were arrested in Molenbeek trying to recruit people for the war in Syria. But that was the “first generation” of recruiters, says Berckman. Just as they were grappling with that threat, the terrain changed again: Now most of the recruitment takes place on social media, instead of in public space, so it’s far more difficult to detect. Investigations into online recruitment fall under the jurisdiction of the federal police, though in the last year or so there has been far more cooperation between them and local forces. But again, it’s all fairly new.
From the perspective of a local police force, Berckmans and his colleagues have learned what to look for and who the recruiters are targeting.
“We know well the profile of these people. There are many young people who come from a ‘criminal background’ in quotation marks, so not big gangsters, but people who have committed petty theft, assaults, drug trafficking sometimes, so that they have had contact with the justice system.”
He says that often it’s a young man or woman who doesn’t have a degree or a job. “From one day to the next, they don’t play soccer anymore, they don’t go to the cultural centers, and the last phase is that they break links with family.”
He says that he has met with desperate parents who come to the station and tell him, “my son has changed, in terms of behavior, in terms of clothing. He’s started to read the Qur’an from A to Z, from Z to A, He doesn’t talk anymore.” Berckmans says this is often the last stage before a young man or woman leaves for Syria.
He recognizes how difficult it can be for a parent to come to the police.
“To take the step toward the police it’s not easy for a father, because they know very well that if we know, at the judicial level we have to act, and he knows well we will open a file. He knows very well we will go to his house, that we will do a search, that we will question his son, that he’s in the judicial machine, you understand, so I think that when a father comes here, it means he doesn’t know what else to do.”
Two years ago, the city hired someone to work on deradicalization. Most of what this person does is conduct trainings with teachers and others in the community. But Berckmans says what’s required is a more structural approach.
“For me, just talking with a young person—this is my personal point of view—you won’t deradicalize them,” says Berckmans, “I think you have to find other things around that provide them with meaning. Most of these people have an identity problem: Are we Morrocan? Are we Belgian? That is something very important.”
He says the second thing is to help them with job training and obtaining a degree that allows them to get a job. He feels it should be part of the role of the police to ensure that there is investment in jobs and education, and ensuring that young people here don’t feel that, “Even if we have a degree, we’re from Molenbeek and we won’t get a job.”
“If you focus on these things I think we can convince these young people that there is a future.”
The other thing Berckmans and his colleagues are working on, along with the federal police, is trying to cripple the financing of IS. To do this, they are focusing on drug trafficking, arms trafficking and the trade in false documents.
Again, much of this is new for European law enforcement, though it doesn’t seem new to American authorities.
“There is a difference between the wars in Syria and Afghanistan and other wars,” he says. “Mercenaries have always existed, but the problem is that these young people are trained there to commit attacks in their countries of origin.”
Striking a balance between maintaining security and helping people feel that life is getting back to normal is a difficult one: “The goal also is to try to go back to normal life, so people aren’t hiding in their houses. We have to not scare people.”
While Belgium is still at a high threat level, public opinion is divided about having so many military and police officers in the streets. The state has put 50 extra officers at the disposal of the Molenbeek force, just in case.
“Some people say it’s almost a police state. Some people say there are a lot of cops, that means there’s a problem. There are others who say, ‘Ah, the police are here, I feel secure.’ We are still working on finding a happy medium.”