Apr 2nd 2016 | VILVOORDE
In the first of three articles about Western countries’ attempts to counter Islamist violence, we look at a Belgian programme for disaffected Muslim youngsters
“IT WAS a time-bomb; merely a matter of when,” sighs Rafiq, a young man who runs a newspaper shop in Vilvoorde, just north of Brussels. Surrounded by papers with pictures of the bombers who killed at least 32 people in the Belgian capital on March 22nd, Rafiq says he is sure more will follow in their footsteps. “In Molenbeek it’s all out in the open. It’s well-known that terrorists live there. Here, it’s more hidden.”
Vilvoorde is less notorious than Molenbeek, a suburb of Brussels that has become synonymous with jihadists and their sympathisers. Yet it has at least as troubling a history. Between 2012 and 2014 it is thought to have produced more recruits for foreign jihadist groups, as a share of Muslim residents, than anywhere else in western Europe. With a big Muslim population, and conveniently located on the AntwerpBrussels railway line, it proved an easy hunting ground for recruiters for Islamic State (IS). Security officials believe that 28 young locals had left for Syria by May 2014.
Khadija Boulahrir, who now works in Brussels, still cannot believe that her former playmates joined IS. In the town’s Grote Markt square, Hamed, an older man, says he understands all too well. “There is nothing to do here for them,” he says. “No jobs, no apprenticeships, nothing.” Of Vilvoorde’s 43,000 inhabitants, 43% are of foreign origin; nearly half of those are unemployed. Many have parents or grandparents who came here as guest workers, before the local Renault factory closed 20 years ago.
But in one respect Vilvoorde is very different from Molenbeek. In 2014 it decided to counter the lure of violent extremism head-on, with a prevention programme aimed at youngsters thought to be at risk. As the investigation into the bombings extends across Europe, evaluating its effectiveness has become a matter of urgency.
The Vilvoorde programme starts from the premise that alienated youngsters are most likely to turn to violent extremism. “We want to give them a stake in society,” says Moad el Boudaati, a social worker whose best friend was among those who left for Syria. Most of those who join IS come from broken homes, where the father is absent and the mother has lost all authority, he says. Now he spends much of his time meeting parents, speaking with young people and working with imams.
Tip-offs may come from schools or parents: after the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris last year many teachers called, alarmed by pupils who called the killers heroes. For each tip-off a team is set up; perhaps a health worker, a religious leader, a social worker, someone from the parent network and a school employee. It may offer therapy, help in finding a job, or housing support or parenting advice for the family. The aim, says Jessika Soors, who runs the scheme, is to “increase resilience, both of the families and the young people”.
Relations between the police and local youngsters used to be disastrous, says Mr el Boudaati. Frequent house searches and random frisking on the street bred resentment. Now matters are slowly improving; police hold town-hall meetings to hear young peoples’ grievances. But Ms Soors is adamant that police involvement remain limited so as not to jeopardise trust.
Opinions are divided over the effectiveness of showering could-be jihadists with attention and support. (A similar programme in Aarhus, Denmark, is even more generous.) And, like all prevention programmes, this one is hard to evaluate — how to count the youngsters who would have left had it not been for timely intervention? But in a positive sign, authorities think no further recruits have left from Vilvoorde since May 2014. Yet a new challenge is looming. Of the 28 who left to fight before that date, eight are known to have died in Syria (including Mr el Boudaati’s former best friend) and three are in prison in Belgium. One who returned and is living in Vilvoorde is intensively monitored and supported by local services.
Hide and seek
Keeping tabs on returning IS fighters is more onerous than preventing someone leaving for Syria in the first place. Both in Belgium and elsewhere, they may live openly, claiming to have volunteered in refugee camps. Others go into hiding: the arrest in Molenbeek on March 18th of Salah Abdeslam, the Belgian-born prime suspect in the attacks on Paris last November, demonstrated the frightening ease with which security services could be evaded. According to the authorities, at least one returned fighter is among the eight suspects in the Brussels and Paris attacks who are still on the run.