Molenbeek ex-mayor defends record after Paris attacks
Is Philippe Moureaux, who led the downtrodden district of Molenbeek in Brussels for almost two decades, in part responsible as critics charge for the deadly attacks in Paris last November?
"Absolutely not," Moureaux tells AFP in an interview, saying instead that he had done his best to combat the rise of radical Islam.
Critics say the 76-year-old turned a blind eye to the radicals during his 20 years as mayor in hope of securing votes and social peace in his gritty, largely immigrant quarter of the Belgian capital.
Molenbeek is now best known as being home to several key Islamic jihadis, chief among them Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the organiser of the Paris killings who recruited old friends and other small-time delinquents to help him carry out the attacks.
It was also home to Salah Abdeslam, the Paris attacks suspect who is still on the run and who some think may have found refuge in Molenbeek for a time after the killings.
"When I saw the rise of radicalism, I tried to fight it. It wasn't yet as violent as today," Moureaux said, sitting on a brown leather sofa in his apartment in Molenbeek.
"I was the first mayor in Belgium to ban the full-face veil," he said in the interview, part of a publicity push for his French-language book "The Truth On Molenbeek".
Moureaux, who stepped down as mayor in 2012, was political boss to a district that is about one-half muslim, mostly of Moroccan-origin, and that is plagued by one of the highest jobless rates in Europe.
Only a short walk from the Grand Place tourist hub in Brussels, Molenbeek was once an industrial area but fell on hard times after factories shut and jobs disappeared.
It has since been connected to a long list of Islamist violence, from the assassination of the Afghan anti-Taliban commander Ahmed Shah Massoud, the Madrid bombings in 2004, to the killing of four people at the Brussels Jewish Museum in 2014.
The foiled shooting on a high-speed train in August also had a link to Molenbeek and Abaaoud.
- 'Real polariser' -
Moureaux said the poverty blighting Molenbeek was not the real driver of the Paris attacks, instead pointing to the charismatic powers of Abaaoud.
"What is specific to Molenbeek and dramatic, is this cell that suddenly built around Abaaoud who according to my information I have come to realise was the real polariser," Moureaux said.
"In other words, it's he who, not through religion but through buddies and friends, built this cell," he said.
Moureaux warned that the war in Syria, and the meteoric rise of the Islamic State group, changed everything in his neighbourhood.
"There has been a spread of radicalism through the Syrian phenomenon since I was mayor," said Moureaux.
The Belgian authorities have formally charged 11 people in connection with the Paris attacks, including a number from Molenbeek.
"The great majority of this population has no ties to the criminal element (behind the attacks), but condemns it," Moureaux said.
"For anyone who knows the city a little, it's far from a hell-hole," he said.
© 2016 AFP