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Trudy Rubin: How to transform Europe’s jihadi hotbeds

People light candles in the shape of a heart outside the stock exchange in Brussels on Tuesday after terrorist attacks killed more than 30 people.
People light candles in the shape of a heart outside the stock exchange in Brussels on Tuesday after terrorist attacks killed more than 30 people. The Associated Press

Four days before Tuesday’s grisly bomb attacks in Brussels, the police raided a shabby three-story brick row house in this heavily Moroccan working-class district of Brussels. There they captured Salah Abdeslam, said to be the last surviving member of the terror group that killed 130 people in Paris in November.

Abdeslam had eluded police for four months and no one in Molenbeek betrayed him. Nor did anyone warn police about plans to bomb Brussels’ airport and metro.

So the new attacks raise the same frustrating question: How to deal with the social pathology that has made Molenbeek a notorious jihadi base from which youths travel to Syria and hatch plots to attack Europe?

Earlier this week, I visited Molenbeek and found two different communities – one isolated and resentful, and the other struggling to advance with insufficient help from the outside. The key to halting the incubation of terror lies in whether officials can offer “the other Molenbeek” a more hopeful future – one that shields its children from the fantasies sold by the shills for jihad.

On the surface, Molenbeek doesn’t look scary. Crowds of locals, including many women in hijab, jostle along a main street lined with halal butcher shops, inexpensive clothing and household goods stores, barber shops, and cafes, where unemployed men gather to sip tea.

But residents say that Molenbeek has changed dramatically over the past decade, losing its onetime diversity of cultures. Shops and restaurants stopped selling alcohol, Islamic bookshops multiplied, the last Jewish shops (left over from when this was a post-WWII Jewish community) moved out after being threatened by hostile young men. Locals no longer mingle with other Belgians.

“This municipality has the highest population density in Brussels and one of the most youthful populations,” I was told over coffee by Sarah Turine, deputy mayor of Molenbeek. She says the schools are poor, and the dropout rate high, while unemployment reaches 40 to 50 percent in the 18- to 25-year-old age group.

“Recruiters from Syria come looking for them (unemployed youths) and hang out in cafes and mosques to talk to them. They give them a sense of purpose,” Turine said.

Abdeslam was a typical school dropout: He trafficked in drugs with his brother (who was also one of the Paris attackers). There was no hint he was ever involved in radicalism, nor did he attend a mosque. But a childhood friend who had gone to Syria in 2014 recruited the brothers.

All over Europe, but especially in Belgium, officials are wrestling with how to reach out to alienated and culturally isolated Arab-European youths.

After many locals left for Syria in the summer of 2013, the Molenbeek municipality set up an outreach program to help families whose children “were in danger of leaving.” They trained social workers to discredit what the recruiters are saying.

Clearly these programs are insufficient.

Yves Goldstein, cabinet chief to the Brussels regional president, believes that reaching children ages 7 to 12 – before they quit school – is essential. “We have to create more diverse schools, housing, education, but local governments have no money,” he said in frustration.

In other words, Belgian officials are spending hundreds of millions for security but haven’t the funds to bolster schools and expand cultural offerings for youth who are prey for jihadi recruiters.

Yet just three blocks from Abdeslam’s hideout, I found a hint of the other Molenbeek, the majority of whom are looking for a better life and fear that their children might be wooed away to fight jihad.

The riddle of Molenbeek is how to convince more youths that they can succeed. One way would be to use some of the millions allotted to security to beef up the schools.

Trudy Rubin’s email is trubin@phillynews.com.