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Investigators Explore Belgian Neighborhood's Connection To Terrorism

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Belgium faces another uncomfortable collision with history. That tiny country was invaded in both world wars. Its capital, Brussels, later became the capital of the European Union. Belgium has also been a destination for migrants, and now a few people in those immigrant communities are linked with terror attacks, including the attacks on Paris. Ben Taub, who writes for The New Yorker, has been tracing Belgium's story.

BEN TAUB: In 1964, the Belgian government invited guest workers from Morocco to help revive its dwindling labor force. And today, a lot of the second and third generation children of those families face some difficulty in Belgian society. The mother of one young man who became a suicide bomber in Syria told me that her son always felt like a foreigner, even though he was born in Belgium. And when he visited family in Morocco, he was treated as Belgian there, so there's been a lot of identity questions going on.

INSKEEP: Where did you meet the mother of the young man who became a suicide bomber in Syria?

TAUB: I met her in Brussels, but she had moved from Vilvoorde, which is a town along the train line between Antwerp and Brussels. In fact, what we see is that the vast majority of Belgians fighting in Syria came from this train line between Antwerp and Brussels. It can really, I think, be attributed largely to the efforts of recruiters who operated in those small towns.

INSKEEP: Operated in small towns up and down the train line.

TAUB: Exactly, and this began before the Syrian war. In 2010, a man named Fouad Belkacem tried to form a group called Sharia4Belgium and very successfully recruited young people who were frustrated with their position in Belgian society, who were having difficulty in school. Many of them had had run-ins with the police in the past. And soon afterwards, in 2012, when Belkacem was in prison, a number of his followers began leaving for Syria. These small neighborhoods - these small towns - each departure has a massive effect on the local community. So for everyone who goes to Syria, there are 20 others who are affected - friends, family, teachers - and people continue to remain in touch with them.

INSKEEP: You're saying that if one person or five people go from Belgium to Syria, they leave, and that's one thing. But they also effectively create a network back in Belgium of potential sympathizers or contacts.

TAUB: Well, it's hard to say. I - the deradicalization counselor in Vilvoorde told me that although the authorities have gotten better at stopping people from going to Syria, support is growing for the Islamic State cause in Belgium, especially among minors.

INSKEEP: What have people said as the number of attacks has piled up that have been traced back to Belgium in different ways?

TAUB: Well, it makes sense because one way to skirt intelligence agencies and intelligence sharing across Europe is to plan things in one country and implement them in another. So it makes sense that the attackers would use Belgium as a hub because it's easy to hide within communities, and you can be in Paris in a couple of hours. And the French authorities and the Belgian authorities are not necessarily sharing intelligence as quickly as these guys can travel from one to the other.

INSKEEP: Ben Taub, writing for The New Yorker in Belgium. Thanks very much.

TAUB: Thank you, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.