BRUSSELS — As Mohamed Abdeslam tells it, his family, which lives on a quiet street of three-story homes in the Molenbeek section of the Belgian capital, was “an open family. We’ve never had problems with the law.”
They do now. Mohamed’s 26-year-old brother is the target of one of the largest manhunts in European history. His other brother blew himself up on the Boulevard Voltaire in Paris on Friday, part of a terror spree that left 129 people dead.
After the attacks in Paris, the second-generation Moroccan family has become the talk of Molenbeek, a mostly Muslim neighborhood that has been called the “European capital of jihad,” producing scores of fighters bent on attacking the West. At least five of the Paris attackers had links to the district, located just across the canal from the chic shops, offices and historic buildings of central Brussels. The neighborhood has become symbolic of the extremist risk Europe faces from some of its own underemployed, alienated citizens.
Only a few weeks before the attacks, Mohamed was working for the local government. His brother Salah, 26, was unemployed, like roughly 40 percent of the young people in Molenbeek. He spent time hanging around the Cafe Les Beguines, run by the sibling who would become the suicide bomber — Brahim, 31.
The red-brick, coffee-and-beer corner tavern bore the name of a semi-monastic Christian lay order that took vows of chastity in the Middle Ages. But the cafe was anything but demure, according to locals.
Earlier this month, police closed the cafe after neighbors complained about the powerful scent of marijuana. A man in the neighborhood who was familiar with the cafe, and who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said it was known as a place to buy hashish and stolen cellphones.
The outlines of the Abdeslam family are still fuzzy, but it’s clear that at least two of the brothers, like many other young men in Molenbeek, previously ran afoul of the law in minor criminal cases. They may have then fallen under the influence of recruiters who have been working for years in Molenbeek to persuade frustrated, underemployed young men to do something more with their lives and wage violent jihad.
Petty crime is common in Molenbeek; the local metro stations are notorious scenes for snatch-and-grab thieves.
Brahim was arrested in 2010 and charged with fencing stolen goods and falsifying papers, according to Eric Van Der Sypt, spokesman for Belgium’s federal prosecutor. The young man did not receive a sentence, only “a slap on the wrist,” Van Der Sypt said. A year later, Brahim was charged with minor traffic offenses.
His younger brother, Salah, also ran into trouble with the law around that time. He had held a job for two years at the Brussels Intermunicipal Transport Company. But in February 2011, he was convicted of breaking and entering and spent a month in preventive custody. He has been unemployed since.
One of the people arrested with him for breaking and entering was his childhood friend Abdelhamid Abaaoud, who a couple of years later started slipping in and out of Syria. Now Abaaoud is thought to be the architect or inspiration behind a number of terrorist attacks, perhaps including those in Paris last week, according to French authorities.
Among those he persuaded to travel to Syria was Brahim, a fact the Abdeslams’ mother acknowledged Monday.
Other Abdeslam family members said in interviews with local reporters that they could see Brahim had been radicalized but that they never thought he would participate in anything as vicious as the attacks in Paris.
The family and friends were even more surprised about Salah. A friend of Salah’s, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told a local news Web site that “if Salah could do this, then any of my mates could do this.”
Salah was married and divorced without children, his brother Mohamed told reporters. The brother had not detected any signs of extremism, he said. “Salah is a Muslim who prays, had in the last couple of months stopped smoking and drinking, and goes to the mosque once in a while,” Mohamed told the French channel BFMTV. “He dressed normally, didn’t show any signs of him being radicalized. It is a frustration that our family lived together without noticing what was going on.”
He added: “About my brother, we don’t know where he is at the moment. We don’t know if, with the tension that there is right now, he could give himself in or not. But you should know that he was brought up here, he studied here, he is an entirely normal boy.”
The brothers were not the only targets for law enforcement in Molenbeek. On Tuesday, Belgian authorities charged two men from the neighborhood with participation in terrorist attacks and participation in the activities of a terrorist organization.
Hamza Attou, 21, and Mohammed Amri, 27, were arrested during house raids in Brussels on Saturday. Authorities suspect that the pair drove from Brussels to Paris to assist fugitive Salah Abdeslam in his getaway.
The federal prosecutor’s spokesman said authorities do not think that either Attou or Amri has traveled to Syria; their previous arrests were limited to traffic offenses.
The spokesman could not say whether these are the same two men who were with Salah Abdeslam when their car was stopped by police Saturday morning in an apparently routine check at a French toll plaza. That vehicle was a rental car hired by Abdeslam, the spokesman said.
Mohamed Abdeslam asked the public not to condemn him along with his brothers. He said that he had held his job with the local government for 10 years and that people who knew him there realized he couldn’t do such things.
“I can understand it is difficult to believe, after what has happened, this tragedy, more then 120 deaths, but you have to understand that our family is in shock, our family is sad, not only for the decision of its child, but more even for the fact that we haven’t been able to prevent it,” Mohamed said.