© 2024 Michigan State University Board of Trustees
Public Media from Michigan State University
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Brussels' Molenbeek District In The Spotlight After Terror Attacks


There was another moment of silence this morning in Brussels. This is the third and final day of official mourning in that city, following terror attacks on the airport and subway. And U.S. officials now say two Americans are among the dead. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley has been reporting in Brussels and joins us. Eleanor, good morning.


GREENE: It sounds like the authorities have been incredibly busy over the last 24 hours rounding people up. Just give us an update on the investigation right now.

BEARDSLEY: Yes, absolutely. There were raids in two or three Brussels neighborhoods, and six people were arrested. We don't know who they are yet. But we do know that Belgian police are looking for another accomplice in the airport attack and the metro attack. Also in Paris, they've arrested someone and they found explosive material in his apartment. They say they foiled an attack. David, the links between the Paris and the Brussels attacks have clearly been established. And many of those attackers carried out - who carried out the attacks in Paris came from one neighborhood in Brussels called Molenbeek.

GREENE: And that's a neighborhood we heard so much about after the Paris attacks. And just remind us about it. I mean, it's a place that many have described as almost an incubator for terrorists, right?

BEARDSLEY: Yes, that's right. Well, I went there yesterday, David. And I met someone who knew Salah Abdeslam, who's the surviving Pairs attacker they arrested a week ago. Molenbeek is only a 10-minute drive from the center of Brussels, and it looks like every other neighborhood. There's old buildings and new.

And when I got there, there were kids playing soccer in the town square in front of a church, and there were people out about. It was clearly a very immigrant neighborhood. A lot of the women, at least those of a certain age, were wearing the hijab, the Muslim headscarf. And a lot of the older men were dressed in the traditional north African robes. So David, here's my report from Molenbeek.

(Speaking French).

ABDEL: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: (Speaking French).

It's my first time in Molenbeek, I tell 42-year-old Abdel when we meet. He moved to Brussels 15 years ago from Morocco to finish his degree in chemistry.

ABDEL: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: "Welcome," he says. Abdel doesn't want to use his last name because of all the trouble here lately. He says people are horrified by what's happened.

ABDEL: (Through interpreter) People don't want to talk right now. Everyone is scared. There's a sadness and anger here right now over these attacks. There is a climate of fear and people don't trust each other, even within the same family.

BEARDSLEY: The last surviving Pairs attacker, Salah Abdeslam, was arrested here in Molenbeek just one week ago. He apparently had been hiding here all the time. Abdel says no one saw Abdeslam in public, but he must've been hidden and protected.

ABDEL: (Through interpreter) There's a small minority of people here, a kind of mafia, involved in drugs that could've hidden and protected him. But the majority of people here reject these terrorists. We're fighting them, too, and trying to defend our neighborhood.

BEARDSLEY: Abdel knew Salah Abdeslam and his brother, Brahim. Brahim was one of the Paris attackers who shot people at outdoor cafes before blowing himself up. We go get a bite to eat in one of Molenbeek's popular Moroccan restaurants and he tells me about the brothers.

ABDEL: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: Abdel says, Brahim was an uneducated hoodlum who ran a bar here and dealt drugs. "I didn't have much to say to him," says Abdel. "And I'd always try to end the conversation after a couple of minutes. He was bad news." Abdel says, Salah was a lot younger but he'd see him around town.

ABDEL: (Through interpreter) He was always a spiffy dresser, and you could tell he thought he was handsome. He liked girls. He liked to go out dancing. He was nothing like his brother. I never thought he'd become a terrorist.

BEARDSLEY: Abdel says the question everyone here is asking themselves is how these kids are becoming terrorists. He says neither of the brothers was religious.

ABDEL: (Through interpreter) All the guys who fell into terrorism were kind of the same. They didn't seem to have any objectives in their lives, and when it's like that, you feel lost and have a kind of emptiness inside you. I think this is why they fell into the terrorist trap.

BEARDSLEY: We leave the restaurant and walk through town. We pass working-class cafes and inexpensive shops. Abdel says people from around the city pour into Molenbeek's weekly street market, which is said to be one of the best in Brussels.

ABDEL: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: We arrive at the apartment of Salah and Brahim. Salah was arrested just a few feet from here in another apartment last Friday. Abdel says their older brother, Mohamed, who he says is a decent guy and works at the municipality, still lives here with their mother. Abdel says no one has seen her much since the Paris attacks.

GREENE: That reporting coming from NPR's Eleanor Beardsley, who's still on the line. And, Eleanor, I remember so many people in this neighborhood not wanting to have this image of being this place where terrorists come from. I guess that fight for them must be getting even harder now.

BEARDSLEY: Absolutely. Abdel told me he's exhausted trying to defend this neighborhood. And the majority of people want to do good and people to think good things about Molenbeek. But it's a small group, he said, that's really ruining life there.

GREENE: OK. Eleanor Beardsley reporting from Brussels. Eleanor, thanks.

BEARDSLEY: Thank you, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eleanor Beardsley began reporting from France for NPR in 2004 as a freelance journalist, following all aspects of French society, politics, economics, culture and gastronomy. Since then, she has steadily worked her way to becoming an integral part of the NPR Europe reporting team.
Journalism at this station is made possible by donors who value local reporting. Donate today to keep stories like this one coming. It is thanks to your generosity that we can keep this content free and accessible for everyone. Thanks!