Paris attacks: The Molenbeek, Belgium connection

The New York Times reports: Authorities there have arrested several people in Molenbeek, a poor section of Brussels that is home to many Arab immigrants and that has been linked to past terrorist attacks.

Amedy Coulibaly, who carried out the January attack on a kosher supermarket in Paris, is believed to have bought weapons in Molenbeek. Mehdi Nemmouche, a Frenchman who targeted the Jewish Museum of Belgium in Brussels in 2014, killing four people, also reportedly obtained weapons there.

Most recently, Ayoub El Khazzani, a Moroccan who was thwarted in his attempt to attack passengers on a high-speed train to Paris from Amsterdam, is also thought to have lived there at some point.

“I notice that each time there is a link with Molenbeek,” Prime Minister Charles Michel of Belgium said on Sunday. “This is a gigantic problem.”

Investigators have identified three brothers in Molenbeek as crucial suspects in the Paris attacks. Belgian prosecutors identified one, Ibrahim Abdeslam, as the suicide bomber who struck the Comptoir Voltaire cafe. Another brother, Mohamed, was detained Saturday in Molenbeek.

A third, Salah Abdeslam, 26, described as dangerous, is the subject of a widening manhunt by the French. He apparently slipped through their fingers immediately after the attacks.

“He was stopped and his papers were checked,” said Agnès Thibault-Lecuivre, a spokeswoman for the Paris prosecutor’s office. “It was a routine road check. He showed his papers. ”

Asked if there had been anything in his papers to indicate that he should have been arrested, she replied, “Nothing.”

Two vehicles used in the attacks were rented in Belgium last week, the federal prosecutor for Belgium announced on Sunday. One was a gray Volkswagen Polo, abandoned near the Bataclan hall after being used by the three attackers who died there.

The other, a black Seat Leon, was discovered early Sunday morning in the eastern Paris suburb of Montreuil. Inside were three Kalashnikov rifles; there was speculation that the vehicle had been a getaway car for gunmen in central Paris. [Continue reading…]

CNN reports: In an interview with CNN terrorism analyst Paul Cruickshank in August, Alain Grignard, a senior member of the counterterror unit in the Brussels federal police and a lecturer on political Islam at the University of Liege, said the perpetrators of the Verviers plot [in January] fitted a typical profile of Belgian jihadists: “men in their early twenties mostly from the Molenbeek district of Brussels moving in circles with a track record of delinquency and petty crime.”

“They were radicalized very quickly, and when they came back from Syria they had no fear of death,” Grignard said in the interview, published in the Combating Terrorism Center’s publication, the CTC Sentinel. Cruickshank is also editor-in-chief of the CTC Sentinel.

“These guys had maybe more experience in gunbattles than our own commandos.”

Like many European jihadists, they were an outgrowth of the “inner-city gang phenomenon,” he said, who had already revolted against Western society through petty crime and delinquency before having their antisocial approach “legitimized” by a radical strain of Islam.

“These youngsters are getting quickly and completely sucked in. The next thing they know they’re in Syria and in a real video game,” he said.

He told Cruickshank that the terror threat in Belgium, fueled by the trail of young jihadists to fight in Syria and Iraq, had “never been higher in all the years I’ve been working on counterterrorism.”

“To give you an idea of the scale of the challenge, in the past two years we’ve charged more people with terrorism offenses than in the 30 years before that,” he said. “It’s impossible to do surveillance on everybody.”

Since 2012, he said, al Qaeda had been “trying to talent spot” Western jihadists on the battlefields of Syria for use in potential operations against the West, while ISIS had appeared more focused on state building. But since the start of the U.S.-led air campaign targeting ISIS, the concern had grown that ISIS would also focus on directly targeting Western countries.

“And the worry is that competition between al Qaeda and the Islamic State will see both groups try to outdo each other with attacks in the West,” he said. [Continue reading…]

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