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Belgian Radicals on Margins Among Hometown Muslims

  • Reuters

Belgian police officers guard a street in Verviers, Jan. 16, 2015.

Belgian police officers guard a street in Verviers, Jan. 16, 2015.

Worshippers at one of Belgium's biggest mosques united on Friday in dismay that, barely half a mile away, two of their own community may have died in a blaze of gunfire the night before as they prepared a national campaign of violence.

But among the thousand or so who turn out for weekly prayers at the Assahaba Mosque, in the once flourishing industrial heart of Verviers, many hastened to note that the Islamist plot against police of which the gunmen were suspected did not spring from mainstream teachings among Belgium's half-million Muslims.

"Islam is a religion of peace. We must behave well towards others, be they Christian, Jew or Muslim," 31-year-old Hicham Boumajjal said as he entered the old tannery that became a house of prayer for children of mainly Moroccan immigrants who flocked to Verviers' then thriving industries in the 1960s.

"Militants have even attacked other Muslims," said Boumajjal. "So they make no sense."

Making sense of why so many young Belgians - proportionately far more than any other country in Europe - fight in Syria and return with dreams of wreaking mayhem on their homeland is a conundrum not just for the government in Brussels and its EU neighbors, but for community leaders in towns like Verviers.

"I don't have a solution and I don't think the authorities have one either," said Franck Hensch, who teaches as an imam at the Assahaba Mosque. "So now the real question is - what can we do together with authorities and civil society in order to find solutions to the trend of radicalization of some young people."

The authorities have given few details about the two men who opened fired with an array of assault weapons on police who raided their apartment on rue de la Colline, a 10-minute walk from the mosque on the other side of the river Vesdre.

The two dead and an accomplice who was detained were all Belgian citizens. Like several of a further 14 people held, mainly in Brussels, they had recently returned from Syria, where Islamist fighters have recruited some 300 Belgians since 2011.

But neighbors in Verviers, nestled in the hills between the city of Liege and the German border, said the dead gunmen were local young men from typical backgrounds for the town. Despair at unemployment and alienation from the modern consumer society around them has been widely blamed for turning some to violence.

Jobless and Aimless

With some 50,000 inhabitants and a glorious industrial past in wool and textiles behind it - Verviers has much in common with its English twin town Bradford - the city's hillsides are dotted with derelict factory sites.

Unemployment stands at about 12 percent, well above the 8.5 percent national average.

Joblessness among the young is even higher. But for imam Hensch, there is more to youngsters becoming radical.

"The Internet is the main source of radicalization, on top of all the elements which already make some weaker than others," he said. This, along with the lure of self-styled "street preachers," made it hard for community leaders to counteract it.

"Who can defend against youngsters who can be radicalized in just a few weeks or months?" he asked. "What should we do?"

The Belgian government, which sees no connection with last week's attacks in Paris beyond the broad trend of homegrown Islamist violence, has been taking a lead in Europe in trying to address the risk from "foreign fighters" returning from Syria.

A verdict in a trial of 46 Belgians involved in recruiting for Syria was postponed this week and is due next month. But while the authorities promise retribution to those who take up arms, like the Frenchman accused of shooting dead four people last year at Brussels' Jewish Museum, they are also seeking to understand and find ways to help steer them away from violence.

EU counter-terrorism chief Gilles de Kerchove told public radio in his native Belgium: "The solution? It's what Belgium is doing ... assessing, case by case ... maybe giving psychological help, maybe helping a person find a place back in society, or clearly punishing those with blood on their hands."

Among the youths of Verviers who gathered not at the mosque but to stare at the forensic teams still combing the scorched hideout of the alleged "terror cell," the radicals' motivations appeared as perplexingly unclear as they are to the authorities.

"They were young Muslims from Verviers we know from school and around town," said one youth, Manu, though he did not know the dead men's names. "You meet people like that and they tell you how they are dissatisfied with their life and disappointed with society. But you don't expect them to go crazy like that."