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Europe’s So-Called ‘Jihadi Capital’ Mourns Paris

The poor Brussels neighborhood where several of the accused Paris attackers lived has been labeled a hotbed for extremists

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A candle light vigil in Brussels' Molenbeek district. — AFP/Getty Images
Nov 18, 2015 at 7:36 PM ET

Molenbeek, a poor neighborhood in Brussels, made international news this week for its connection to Friday’s massacre in Paris. Headlines called it a “Haven for Belgian jihadis” and “Europe’s crucible of terror.” Three of the Paris attackers are believed to be from the neighborhood, which is just a metro stop away from the city center, and police arrested at least two more and charged them with terror-related offenses.

On Wednesday morning, police raided a home in Saint Denis, France, believed to be the hideout of Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the suspected ringleader of the attack—and a resident of Molenbeek. Unconfirmed reports say Abaaoud was killed in the assault.

A few hours later, citizens of the suspected mastermind’s onetime neighborhood came out in droves to remember those who died in the attacks. Nearly 3,000 people turned out for a candle-light vigil to celebrate the lives of the 129 who died in the massacre—and to show that the vast majority of the 100,000 residents are ordinary people, mourning the tragedy in Paris along with the rest of the world. Many also said they were saddened to see their home back in the news for the wrong reasons.

Vocativ was at the vigil and had the chance to speak with several community members who want to re-shape Molenbeek’s image. Here’s what a few of them told us.

“I am very shocked at everything that happened in Paris and very happy that the mastermind behind it is [reportedly] dead. Everyone is looking at Molenbeek. Everything has been good for decades. And now the media say terrorists live in our neighborhood. I don’t understand. [Terror] is not only in Paris; its global. It’s worldwide.” —Yassaouyam Jamal, a retired local government worker who has lived in Molenbeek for 30 years.

“It’s heartbreaking that people take such shortcuts, that they try to put everyone in the same bag. That they can not make see difference between us [and terrorists], it’s very sad. People need to educate themselves, and not lump all of us together.” —A Muslim teenager from the neighborhood who asked not to be named.

“The accusations [that Molenbeek fosters terrorists] are easy to make. But a municipality has limited power in matters of police and security, and is not responsible for a phenomenon that is worldwide. No country is prepared for that, for having a terrorist group like Daesh [ISIS]. It’s a frankenstein terror group, recruiting youngsters to leave Belgium and go to Syria. Some of them are not even religious, but they get convinced by Daesh; their recruiting is very efficient.” —Ahmed El Khannouss, the deputy mayor of Molenbeek.