Dramatic events in Paris should be a wake-up call for Brussels – Interview ABC News

Belgium's Prime Minister has admitted that authorities have lost control of Brussels suburb of Molenbeek. Senior Fellow at the Itinera Institute, Bilal Benyaich says extremists there are a minority, but a visible one.

SABRA LANE, PRESENTER: The Brussels suburb of Molenbeek is emerging as a key staging post for the bloody violence. Two of the attackers and three other people involved in the planning are linked with the suburb.

The country's prime minister has admitted that authorities have "lost control" of Molenbeek.

Bilal Benyaich is a Belgian radicalism expert, based at the Itinera Institute in Brussels and he joins me now.

Bilal Benyaich, Molenbeek has been linked to the Madrid train bombing more than a decade ago, the Charlie Hebdo shooting earlier this year, an attack on a fast train in August and now this Paris attack. How has that happened?

BILAL BENYAICH, RADICALISM EXPERT: Actually, he here have in Molenbeek – and actually, not only Molenbeek, also in other communes of Brussels; like, in four of five communes – we have an extremist minority. It goes back to the 1990s, actually. And the recent terror groupings that we have here in Brussels nowadays actually come back a ways in time and are the new generation of these extremist networks here in Brussels.

But it's not only Molenbeek; it's also Anderlecht, Schaerbeek. We have, like, four or five communes here in Brussels where there is a violent extremist minority. Luckily, it's a minority – but it's a very visible minority and a very dangerous minority, also.

SABRA LANE: How has that minority been able to flourish, though? Because it's been a problem there for years?

BILAL BENYAICH: Could you repeat the question, please?

SABRA LANE: Yes. How have those radicalised elements been allowed to flourish? This has been a problem, I understand, for years?

BILAL BENYAICH: Exactly. Actually, our policy makers did not pay a lot of attention to this problem. They didn't address the problem when it was still manageable. They underestimated it and it was until the Madrid bombing that Guy Verhofstadt in 2005 actually made up an anti-radicalisation plan.

But still now they are facing it, these last years, but they are not tackling it efficiently enough. So more has to be done. And I hope that these dramatic events in Paris could be a real wake-up call.

SABRA LANE: Give us a real sense of what the community is like: what the suburb's like, whether the community is willing and able to help police?

BILAL BENYAICH: Of course they are, actually. The community, the majority of the Muslims here in Molenbeek are not radicals as such. There are lots of conservative Muslims but they are not by definition radicals.

They are in contact with police. But the problem here in Brussels is that there is a big gap, a big distance between the citizens of this city – also the Muslim citizens – and the police itself, which make it difficult for the police to get information in time.

So there is a communication problem because lots of our policemen here do not come from Brussels: they come from Flanders or Wallonia. They do not know the Brussels culture, this urban culture, and they do not know the Muslim communities here in Brussels. This is a major problem.

SABRA LANE: What about the issue of illegal weapons? How easy is it to buy illegal weapons in Belgium?

BILAL BENYAICH: Well, these areas here are very poor areas and there is a big informal economy. So there is also a big black market for drugs, people smugglers and weapons. It's not that difficult to buy a weapon here in Brussels if you have enough money.

And it doesn't have to be much money: like, US$500, up to US$1,000. You could easily buy a Kalashnikov if you look around for one hour.

So that's a major problem here: is that the black market for weapons is flourishing and that our policy makers do not tackle this problem the way that it should have been tackled.

SABRA LANE: Extreme preaching is also, I understand, an issue in some parts of the suburb that authorities haven't been able to successfully tackle. Why is that?

BILAL BENYAICH: Could you explain it again, please? Because I didn't understand your last question.

SABRA LANE: Sorry. Extreme preaching: so preachers who are preaching messages of hate?

BILAL BENYAICH: Extreme preaching?

SABRA LANE: Yes, that right – has been a real issue in that suburb. Why haven't authorities been able to successfully tackle that?

BILAL BENYAICH: Well, the problem there is actually when people, when some radical Muslims have extreme preaching, as long as they do not call people to commit violence or as long as they do not preach hate, even a radical discourse falls in the boundaries of the freedom of speech. It's very difficult to catch extremists having extreme speeches on tape.

But in closed chat rooms on the Internet, extreme violently preaching is more common than in the mosques here. Most of the mosques here in Brussels – also in Molenbeek, in this neighbourhood – are not radical.

There are some mosques with Salafi tendencies, but the preachers – or the preachers nowadays in 2015 – are not that extremist anymore. Now everything happens behind closed doors and also on the Internet, where the control is much less profound.

SABRA LANE: You're a Belgian of Moroccan heritage. Do you think that this latest incident in Paris will bring about a political will in Belgium to do something about the problem?

BILAL BENYAICH: I think and I really hope that this is a wake-up call for our authorities, public authorities: so for the mayor of Molenbeek; of all the other communes; for the Brussels authorities; for the federal authorities and also for the Moroccan community itself – because actually our society created monsters.

We have monsters in our midst and we should neutralise them and prevent that these new monsters can be created, actually.

So I think that the responsibility is something that is shared between all relevant stakeholders, including parents, imams, mosques, public authorities.

But let's hope that this is really a wake-up call, because it went already too far.

SABRA LANE: Bilal Benyaich, thank you very much for talking to 7.30 tonight.