BRUSSELS —Nearly overnight, one of Europe’s major cities was transformed and it seems no one was able to stop it. Brussels’ reputation as a lively city known for beer and chocolate has been eclipsed by the dark shadow of terrorism.
The attacks at the city’s airport and subway on March 22 were a painful coda to November’s deadly Paris attacks: many of the assailants who had carried out that massacre grew up in Brussels and now radicals from those same communities turned to a new target – their neighbors.
ISIS claimed responsibility for the bombings that left 32 dead and hundreds injured. The extremist group’s ability to recruit in Belgium has been prolific. The country exports more foreign fighters to Syria and Iraq per capita than any other country. And it’s no fluke that ISIS picked Brussels as its terror recruiting ground, according to Michael Privot, the director of the European Network Against Racism.
Several European cities are just a quick train or drive away from Brussels, making it an ideal outpost for terror groups to plot and carry out attacks.
“If I was in the shoes of Daesh, I would establish myself in Brussels,” said Privot, referring to ISIS by an alternate name. “It’s really very practical in terms of connections and the fact that you can easily disappear in a very diverse population.”
Brussels’ geography allows terrorists easy access to some of Europe’s major cities: Paris, Berlin, Amsterdam, just to list a few. But its location isn’t the only explanation to why it has become such a ripe target for radicalization.
“It’s a series of factors,” said Tewfik Sahih, a lifelong Schaerbeek resident. “The first one is socio-economic.”
Molenbeek: Terror recruiting ground
CBS News visits Belgium, which provides more foreign fighters to Iraq and Syria, per capita, than any other European nation. One mother tells how…
The districts of Molenbeek and Schaerbeek, which make up what’s known as the “poor croissant” of Brussels, are home to a large population of Moroccan and Turkish immigrants. In Molenbeek, it’s estimated that 1 out of 2 young men of Moroccan origin are without a job.
“When you have no life objectives, no long-term objectives, you try to find your quest for self elsewhere,” said Sahih. “Many people feel discriminated [against] here. Some citizens here don’t feel part of the national community.”
The average age of Belgium jihadists ranges from 20 to 24, according to analysis by the Brussels-based Egmont Institute, a think thank specializing in international relations. Two of the Brussels terrorists were Belgian-born brothers of Moroccan descent: Brahim el-Bakraoui, 29, and Khalid el-Bakraoui, 27. Both had spent time in prison for violent crimes.
Mohamed Azaitraoui works with juvenile delinquents in Brussels, including those at risk of being radicalized. He explained that radicalization does not happen in official mosques because the mosques would be denounced and face problems from the police. Instead, recruiters work the streets and the internet.
A military soldier stands guard near the office of the Molenbeek police department.
“They choose someone who is available first, someone who has hate for the West,” he said. “They prey on international conflict and use atrocious images of children to say, ‘Look, our cause is to fight for the weak.’ The recruiters are very welcoming and offer financial help. The young people look at them as a savior and become indebted so that when they’re asked to go and commit and attack, they’ll say yes.”
Geraldine Henneghien is the mother of one of these young Belgian men who fell for the trap. Her son Anis became an ISIS recruit and wound up dead in Syria.
“The persons, they destroy my family, now they destroy my country,” said Henneghien, who is part of a growing group of families whose children have left for Syria.
Geraldine Henneghien, the mother of a foreign fighter who died in Syria, speaks to students at a Brussels school about the perils of radicalization.
Since CBSN last spoke to her in December of 2015 after the attacks in Paris, Henneghien has been busy speaking to young students at schools to warn them of the perils of radicalization. As hard as it is for her to relive the death of her son, Henneghien believes it is her duty to expose the fraud the recruiters shill out.
“The young people we meet in school, they say, ‘Oh we didn’t know that it was so and now we know the truth,'” said Hennighen.
For the moment, Henneghien and the other parents are self-funding their efforts but hope to get financial aid from the government.
“Terror in Brussels: Hiding In Plain Sight” airs on CBSN at 8 PM ET on Monday April 11.