Brussels neighborhood finds it ever tougher to live down extremist breeding ground reputation

There is just one cafe left near Molenbeek's Place Communale square where you can buy Belgium's national drink — beer.

Instead, stores on the square and the narrow streets that lead off it mostly sell North African food and Islamic robes and head scarves.

In the aftermath of the deadly attacks on Paris, the densely populated Brussels neighborhood of just under 100,000 — some 80 percent of whom are of Moroccan descent according to the mayor — has gained a reputation as one of Europe's pre-eminent breeding grounds for jihadis, and preferred stop for extremists.

Mayor Francoise Schepmans acknowledges that a small minority of Molenbeek's Muslim population has been radicalized in recent years. But she and other residents who spoke Monday played down the scale of the problem, even as heavily armed police in ski masks and body armor searched a nearby home in one of the neighborhood's gritty streets.

Police arrested three suspects in the impoverished neighborhood on Saturday, and French officials on Monday identified Abdelhamid Abaaoud, who grew up there, as the presumed mastermind of the attacks last Friday in Paris that killed 129 people and injured hundreds.

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Mohamed Abdeslam, one of three brothers who have been linked to the Paris attacks, emerged from an apartment overlooking the central square in Molenbeek on Monday after being released by Belgian authorities to tell reporters that he and his family "could never have believed that one of our brothers was involved."

Abdeslam's brother Brahim was one of the suicide attackers who died in Friday night's attacks and his other brother, Salah, is still on the run.

Schepmans said that she was shocked by the Paris attacks and her community's links to them.

"I've been living here for 50 years," she said. "It's really my neighborhood. It's not a nest of terrorism."

Molenbeek — pronounced MOHL'-un-bayk — right now clearly is a melting pot of Islamic influences, but the Muslims are just the latest wave of migrants to call it home. In the past, Rwandans fleeing genocide have settled there, followed by refugees from the former Yugoslavia and other war-torn parts of the world. If they prosper in their new lives in Belgium's capital, they move to different, more upscale parts of town.

Molenbeek has soaked up so many waves of migrants in recent decades that its Belgian identity has been all but washed away.

The names of stores like La Maison du Saree and Mohamed Bijouterie underscore the blending of French-speaking Belgium with North African and Asian influences.

Locals who gathered on the rain-soaked central square insisted it's a great place for most people to live, and blamed a tiny minority for stigmatizing an entire neighborhood.

Reda Ben Baghdad, who described himself as a Belgian who was born and raised in Molenbeek, rejected claims that the neighborhood is a hotbed of radicalization.

"I've lived here for 35 years, I'm not a jihadi," he said. "The mosques here are financed by the Belgian state. They respect Belgian laws."

He said radicals come from all over the world, not just this small Brussels neighborhood.

"They could live here, they could live in Paris, they could live in London. Molenbeek is OK."

Mayor Schepmans estimated about 30 locals have traveled to Syria. She said the local municipality is doing its best to fight radicalization, but needs more support.

"What is happening in Molenbeek can happen in other neighborhoods if we don't understand the scale of the problem," she said. "What has happened here can happen elsewhere. I'm convinced of it."