She blew the lid off the epicenter of European jihadism 11 years ago by going undercover in Molenbeek, exposing the “little Morocco” situated just minutes from the center of Brussels as a hotbed of extremist preachers and recruiters.
But it is only since the Paris attacks in November, and this week’s terrorist carnage in Brussels that journalist Hind Fraihi is being widely hailed for the remarkable investigative work that she says “neglectful” authorities and Belgian society have failed to act upon.
In 2005, the Flemish-speaking Belgian reporter of Moroccan origin decided to see for herself how and why Molenbeek was becoming a magnet for Islamist imams and sheiks recruiting candidates for jihad in places like Afghanistan, Chechnya and Iraq.
She spent three months living in rented accommodation in the area, posing as a student. The result was a book Undercover in Little Morocco, also published as Inflitrated: Among the radical Islamists. It was recently translated and published in France as Immersion in Molenbeek, in which she recounts how Islamist preachers were spreading their radical and murderous ideas to young people from the same generation as the terrorists that struck Paris and Brussels in November and March.
For her efforts at the time she was attacked as Islamophobic and racist, however Belgians are realizing belatedly how prescient and accurate her portrayal of the now-notorious neighborhood was. “If I had presented myself as a journalist, I would have gotten no information,” she said in an interview with French magazine Marianne. “In this type of place, these neighborhoods, when you are a journalist they ridicule you and believe you are part of the Zionist camp and that you are against Muslims. So I infiltrated their world as a sociology student…and what did I say?
“That Molenbeek is an enclave, and a society within a society. These people are very distant from us in Western society. They are focused on the Middle East or Morocco. For example when I asked ‘Who is Guy Verhofstadt’ no one knew how to respond. It was our prime minister.”
Fraihi reported on the popular and charismatic ‘Sheik’ preacher Bassam Ayachi, one of several figures in her book who have since left for the battlegrounds of Syria and elsewhere. (In November, the Washington Post reported that Ayachi, 69, was said to be leading part of the more moderate Islamic Front group, fighting the Islamic State and the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad.) “He was called ‘the door to Afghanistan,’” she says. “There was a lot going on around this man and he was surrounded by young people. He was very visible and everyone knew perfectly well what he was doing.
“I heard people say that the ‘Sheik’ told them they shouldn’t stay here (in Belgium) and that they must go and fight in Afghanistan.”
As Fraihi points out, Ayachi had been implicated in terrorism cases at least indirectly: in 1999 he officiated the marriage, in a clandestine mosque of the Islamic Center of Belgium, of the Tunisian who assassinated the anti-Taliban commander Massoud, two days before September 11, 2001.
“But we let them be…the authorities let these people act freely. They left them to propagate their vision of the world, a vision that consisted of saying that we were the radical extremists because we took democratic laws too seriously.”
“I think that the authorities didn’t want to believe what was happening here. They didn’t want to understand,” Fraihi told Le Monde in an interview.
The author points to the Centre Islamique belge (Belgian Islamic Center) founded in 1997 and directed by Ayachi that was known as a center for jihadist recruitment. “The federal government knew, but they only cut back on a part of its activities without ever definitively closing it. Has Belgium become a land of jihad? It has been for a long time.
“The connections between Molenbeek from the Madrid attacks (of March 2004) to the Brussels Jewish Museum (May 2014) to the attempted attack in the Thalys train (2015) are old stories. We must remember also that a large contingent of Belgians have left to wage jihad in Syria. We should have set off the alarm bells earlier”.
Undercover in Little Morocco, published first as a series in a Flemish newspaper and then as a book, offered one of the first considered examinations of the blurred lines between petty and serious crime and violent jihadism and terrorism. “For this Sheik and his entourage, it was the sovereignty of Allah that must reign, not democracy. For him and his supporters the Defense Minister (of Belgium) was engaged in Jihad,” Fraihi said. “He said that it was the western world that was jihadist. His way of spreading propaganda was about rationalizing Islam. In other words if you steal a handbag, it’s not a sin so long as you give back the fruits of your theft to jihad.
“He practiced what I call ‘gangster Islam’ and when you look at the profiles of the terrorists who have committed the attacks in Paris and Brussels, you see that nearly all of them have a criminal past and they have nearly all evolved in this milieu that men like Bassam Ayachi knew how to exploit.”
When her book was published 11 years ago there was a big public debate, but it quickly turned against Fraihi. “You know in Belgium we don’t dare say things frankly when it concerns Islam, integration or immigration. We freeze. Ten years ago I was treated as an Islamophobe, and a racist. Some people said I had psychological problems and that I was a Muslim traumatized by Islam.
“However I offered an eyewitness account and said there was a problem in some areas of Molenbeek — I say “some” because I didn’t target the whole area. But it isn’t just this place — other areas like Schaarbeek (the Brussels area where violent arrests of suspected terrorists took place on Thursday night) or Forest are afflicted with the same problems.”
For the renowned investigative journalist, denial has led to “neglect” with horrifying consequences as seen this week in Brussels. “We have collectively denied what was going on a few minutes from the center of the capital of Europe.
“I am convinced that we missed a chance to engage ourselves and seriously reflect, and ask the big questions. In trying to understand these young people and what they want and where they are going … I gave them a face, and a voice.
“The Belgian political right seized the opportunity to defend me and declare there was a problem with Muslims. The parties of the center and left simply didn’t take a stand, unfortunately. And then they continued to neglect the problem. But these young people are still there, like ghosts crossing the streets…all these years of negligence have unfortunately been captured by a terrorist group called Daesh [ISIS]. Because the recruiters know how to see these young people, how to listen to them…and then how to recruit them.”
Read the full story in French at Marianne.