MOLENBEEK, Belgium — The Paris attack fugitive Salah Abdeslam had stockpiled heavy weapons to carry out more violence, according to Belgium’s foreign minister—news that chilled the already tense city even as officials here celebrated capturing the terror suspect alive after a four-month manhunt.
“He was ready to start something from Brussels,” Foreign Minister Didier Reynders told officials and diplomats at the German Marshall Fund’s Brussels forum on Sunday.
Abdeslam was taken alive but wounded after a dramatic shootout Friday in the Brussels neighborhood of Molenbeek. He was found less than a mile from his family’s home after apparently hiding in the area since the Nov. 13 attacks that left 130 dead in Paris.
“We found a lot of weapons, heavy weapons in the first investigations, and we have seen a new network of people around him in Brussels,” the minister said, adding that they’d been searching for 10 people, but found more than 30 people connected to the Paris attacks.
Abdeslam has been charged with “terrorist murder” by Belgian authorities, and is reportedly speaking somewhat freely to interrogators. Reynders said he would be sent to France for prosecution within three months as per the European Union’s extradition policy.
An Algerian man with Abdeslam was killed during the shootout. He was named by Belgium’s federal prosecutor as Samir Bouzid, also wanted in connection to facilitating the Paris attacks. Authorities also arrested three other people who were sheltering Abdesalam, though authorities aren’t certain whether they have any ties to terrorism.
Reynders said improved intelligence sharing with other European countries had helped in the hunt, especially information from Turkey tracking fighters from the so-called Islamic State heading north from the war zone. ISIS had claimed responsibility for the Paris attacks.
More than a thousand foreign fighters are thought to have left the battlefield for Europe, with some believed to be setting up terror cells for future attacks in their home countries, according to U.S. military and intelligence officials.
The minister pointed out that one of the first terrorist attacks committed by a foreign fighter from Syria was when a Frenchman opened fire at Brussels’ Jewish Museum in May 2014, killing three.
A top Moroccan official at the forum said information sharing about ISIS and other militants could be better.
“We are cooperating very closely with Belgium as far as dismantling cells,” said Youssef Amrani, chief of the Moroccan Kingdom’s Royal Cabinet. But he called for daily intelligence sharing on the movement of terrorist manpower and material.
“Islam is being hijacked,” he added, and the pushback so far is “not sufficient.”
“They are trying to target our societies, our countries, the soft belly, if you want, in our countries,” added General Gratien Maire, France’s Vice Chief of Defense. He said military action in Iraq and Syria can stall but not destroy ISIS, adding that the violence in Libya now and Iraq after previous international military victories showed military power is not enough.
Like the Moroccan official, he called for a multipronged approach of attacking ISIS’s siren song of propaganda as well as its finances and recruiting, with heavy investment after fighting stops.
Reynders said the key would be to get Muslim countries and community leaders to convince Muslim communities across Europe that ISIS is a corrupt version of their religion.
“To be honest, it's not for to me to send a message to young people in Brussels,” he said. “They don't have my picture in their bedroom,” he added, a reference to the fact that most of those in power in Belgian government are of Flemish or some other version of Caucasian origin rather than Middle Eastern, African or Asian.
The packed poor Brussels neighborhood of Molenbeek, where Abdesalam was caught, is still swarming with heavily armed police. Uneasy residents have to thread their way through groups of cops, mixed in with a line of television reporters, crews, and satellite trucks who have turned the area into an odd tourist attraction.
Tensions flare easily, with police suspicious of people they believe may have known and sheltered the fugitive for so many weeks. Reporters watched as a slight boy or man tried to parade for their cameras wearing a ski mask and waving a Palestinian flag. They say a heavily armed paramilitary team appeared out of nowhere and dragged him away.
Molenbeek is not a suburb of the city, but sits across a canal from some of its wealthier neighborhoods, only a 15-minute drive from the swank city center. The roughly two-mile-square area is home to some 100,000 residents of mostly Moroccan, Turkish, and Middle Eastern descent. In the modest storefront shops, which would look equally at home in Ramallah or Amman, you can get an excellent kebab and mint tea as well as pommes frites. Shopkeepers visibly relax when visitors use a few phrases of Arabic rather than Dutch or French.
That cultural divide and economic disparity with the rest of Brussels has proven fertile for criminal and extremist religious networks. The area has earned the unwelcome name of “Jihadi capital of Europe,” for the number of residents reported to have traveled to fight in Syria.
Brussels officials say the fact Abdeslam was able to hide for so long points to the social divide that won’t likely improve during the tense and continuing search for other terrorist cells in its shabby-but-neat, narrow streets.
The much-maligned neighborhood has always been a receiving center for immigrants, said city official Yves Goldstein, who was also speaking at the forum. He said it was where his Jewish family once lived, also feeling somewhat outside the French-speaking, largely Caucasian Belgian community.
Goldstein said at 38, he’d never been stopped by police, but many of his Muslim friends have—just one anecdote of a police force that is often accused of profiling. That’s one of many factors that explain why Abdeslam was able to find shelter in Molenbeek, he said.
“It’s that young people born here in Brussels are considering those people as heroes, not as traitors,” said Goldstein, who is cabinet chief for the Brussels Capital Region.
He says the answer is hiring an army of Belgians—from Muslim clerics to social workers—who would reach out to the community, rather than sending in police.
“We know the places where the young people are radicalized, where there are people coming to convince them,” to join extremist groups, Goldstein said in an interview with The Daily Beast. He said they needed to intervene earlier in the process, “before we lose them.”
But right now, he doesn’t have enough money, and with tempers so high, he barely knows where to start.