Details emerging in the wake of the arrest of Salah Abdeslam, dubbed “the most wanted man in Europe” as the last surviving suspect of the November 13 Paris attacks, paint a disturbing picture for counter terror forces. Asdeslam was nabbed when police stormed his last and final hideout – in his hometown of Brussells in Molenbeek, the neighborhood he grew up in — tipped off by a pizza delivery.
That he could evade the massive four-month manhunt launched after the attacks speaks volumes what the West is now up against when it comes to interfacing with entire segments of society cut off from mainstream culture for a number of reasons, most prominently multiculturalism and economics.
"Abdeslam relied on a large network of friends and relatives that already existed for drug dealing and petty crime to keep him in hiding," said Belgium's federal prosecutor Frederic Van Leeuw. "This was about the solidarity of neighbors, families."
But the network extended even further. Belgian Foreign Minister Didier Reynders notes that not all radicalized militants in Belgium join the Islamic State in Syria – or even have Syria as their primary target. An entire web of “accomplices” – whom, until recently, have operated under the radar of police – provided Abdeslam and others like him with weapons and contacts.
Some work “freelance” for the Islamic State, recruiting and planning attacks, while selling drugs or engaging in racketeering on the side to finance their schemes. Others concentrate on terror in the homeland. But what is becoming clear in the wake of Abdeslam’s arrest is the connection between Islamic militants and organized crime.
At the same time, the pool of recruits for Islamist extremists has widened. Counter-terrorism expert Rik Coolsaet notes that whereas in the past, radicalization occurred from religious indoctrination, but today, it is enough to be a secular rebel. From there, the jump to Islamist radical is a short one.
Salah Abdeslam and his brother Brahim, who blew himself up at a Paris café the night of November 13, ran a bar in Molenbeek, popular among young Muslim men in the neighborhood. Shortly before the Paris attacks, it was shut down for drug dealing.
Coolsaet says, "Joining Islamic State opens a thrilling, bigger-than-life dimension to their way of life. For most of them it is akin to street gangs, drug trafficking, juvenile delinquency," he said. “A journey to Utopia."
As prosecutors note, the complexity of the process of radicalization means that monitoring radical mosques, social media and communications with jihadis in Syria is not enough anymore.
Police who entered Molenbeek to arrest Abdeslam were met with a barrage of bottles and other projectiles thrown at them.
As one resident of the neighborhood, who agreed to speak to the press warned about the number of young people radicalized in Molenbeek, said, "It's not over. There are a lot of them."
Meira Svirsky is the editor of ClarionProject.org