Belgian radicals on margins even among hometown Muslims

Fri Jan 16, 2015 5:01pm EST
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By Robert-Jan Bartunek

VERVIERS, Belgium (Reuters) - Worshippers at one of Belgium's biggest mosques united on Friday in dismay that, barely half a mile away, two of their own community may have died in a blaze of gunfire the night before as they prepared a national campaign of violence.

But among the thousand or so who turn out for weekly prayers at the Assahaba Mosque, in the once flourishing industrial heart of Verviers, many hastened to note that the Islamist plot against police of which the gunmen were suspected did not spring from mainstream teachings among Belgium's half-million Muslims.

"Islam is a religion of peace. We must behave well toward others, be they Christian, Jew or Muslim," 31-year-old Hicham Boumajjal said as he entered the old tannery that became a house of prayer for children of mainly Moroccan immigrants who flocked to Verviers' then thriving industries in the 1960s.

"Militants have even attacked other Muslims," said Boumajjal. "So they make no sense."

Making sense of why so many young Belgians - proportionately far more than any other country in Europe - fight in Syria and return with dreams of wreaking mayhem on their homeland is a conundrum not just for the government in Brussels and its EU neighbors, but for community leaders in towns like Verviers.

"I don't have a solution and I don't think the authorities have one either," said Franck Hensch, who teaches as an imam at the Assahaba Mosque. "So now the real question is - what can we do together with authorities and civil society in order to find solutions to the trend of radicalization of some young people."

The authorities have given few details about the two men who opened fired with an array of assault weapons on police who raided their apartment on rue de la Colline, a 10-minute walk from the mosque on the other side of the river Vesdre.

The two dead and an accomplice who was detained were all Belgian citizens. Like several of a further 14 people held, mainly in Brussels, they had recently returned from Syria, where Islamist fighters have recruited some 300 Belgians since 2011.   Continued...

Belgian police investigators inspect the entrance of an apartment in central Verviers, a town between Liege and the German border, in the east of Belgium January 16, 2015. REUTERS/Yves Herman