Has the small Belgian town of Vilvoorde figured out how to reintegrate its Islamists?

Financial Times reports: One winter’s day in 2014 in a small Belgian town, an apparition from Syria’s war walked unannounced into Hans Bonte’s office. Only recently released from prison, the returned fighter wove his way through the corridors of Vilvoorde’s town hall in search of the mayor.

Still wearing his electronic security bracelet and arriving with no notice or permission, the 20-something man never threatened Mr Bonte. Instead, he blurted out his problem — local police and social services were making his life a misery — and his cunning solution.

“He told me ‘the day I don’t have to wear my bracelet any more I will move to Brussels’,” says Mr Bonte, the mayor of Vilvoorde, a struggling industrial town just outside of the Belgian capital. “He said, ‘You are controlling me too much, and I have all these problems here.’”

His plan remains on hold — the man ended up back in prison for other offences — but for Mr Bonte, the possibility that the former jihadi in Syria could go to Brussels and fall off the radar was real. “The lack of control and organisation in the Brussels area remains an enormous problem, also for the security of the whole country,” the Vilvoorde mayor says.

Not long ago, the Flemish town’s biggest problem was factory closures. But since taking office three years ago, Mr Bonte’s top priority has become counter-radicalisation. About 30 people from this community of 40,000 left to fight in Syria and Iraq; some of them even used to play football with Mr Bonte’s son.

His strategy for stemming the flow has shown clear signs of success and has won praise as a creative model of how to effectively marshal the mayor’s powers, which include oversight of local police. [Continue reading…]

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