When detectives discovered a grey VW Polo car with foreign licence plates near the Bataclan concert hall after the bloody attacks in Paris, they would have suspected it would offer clues to the assailants who had wreaked such terror on the city hours earlier. Eyewitnesses had, after all, spoken of the black-clad menappearing from cars bearing Belgian plates before they calmly discharged their weapons or set off their suicide belts at sites across the French capital, killing 129 people.
In fact, a parking ticket casually discarded in the small rented vehicle was to tell them much more than they could have hoped – or, indeed, have feared. It had been issued in the Brussels district of Molenbeek.
Immediately the French security services will have been confident of two things: Islamic State was likely to have been behind the attacks, and the security services had dropped the ball.
A district of derelict warehouses, red-brick terraces and vibrant street life on the canals north-west of the centre of Brussels, Molenbeek was once known as Belgium’s “Little Manchester”. Today it was casually described by one Belgian broadcaster as a “den of terrorists”, where returnees from Syria have in recent years often made their home.
The ordinary daytime strolling atmosphere is entirely comfortable, but it enjoys a reputation for hardline clandestine Salafist cells which the Belgian security services claim to know a lot about but never seem able to deal with.
In a country with one of the highest per capita ratios of locally born jihadis fighting in Syria and Iraq of any country in western Europe, this is a hotspot; a place so impoverished that those elsewhere in Brussels have been known to describe its inhabitants by the playful nickname “Zinneke”, an epithet drawn from an anti-flooding channel of the river Senne, and meaning “mongrel”.
Ayoub el-Khazzani, 25, a Moroccan national, who opened fire with a Kalashnikov on a high-speed Thalys train last August had lived there. The 29-year-old French national of Algerian origin, Mehdi Nemmouche, who killed three people at the Jewish Museum in Brussels in 2014 stayed in the district; as did one of those involved in the Madrid bombings in 2003.
It should be of no surprise that President François Hollande was so quick and so certain in his claim on Saturday that the attacks were “an act of war that was committed by a terrorist army, a jihadist army, Daesh, against France”.
After the discovery of that parking ticket, it did not take long for the Belgian prosecutor’s office to open an anti-terrorist investigation, nor for the French border with Belgium to be tightened. Within hours, a car used in the Paris attacks, registered to a French citizen, was stopped there. The three people inside, seemingly returning to Molenbeek, were detained.
Belgian public television network RTBF reported an unidentified source as saying up to three raids had been subsequently carried out in Molenbeek, and police confirmed that three French nationals living there had been arrested. Pictures emerged of one man being taken from an apartment in handcuffs. The Belgian prime minister, Charles Michel, said one of those arrested may have been in Parison Friday.
“Multiple arrests and search warrants have been executed,” Eric Van Der Sypt, a spokesman for the Belgian federal prosecutors’ office, told reporters. “These operations are still ongoing as we speak.”
The Belgian justice minister, Koen Geens, confirmed the arrests could “be seen in connection with a grey Polo car rented in Belgium”.
At least one of Friday’s attackers, identified by his fingerprints, was a French national from the Paris suburb of Courcouronnes. The man, born in 1985, had a criminal record and had been flagged as an extremist as early as 2010.
But it appears that the Belgian connection is key to what the Paris public prosecutor, at a press conference on Saturday, described as an attack by three cells of jihadi gunmen. It is Molenbeek where a gang of young jihadis coalesced, or was coordinated, under the noses of European’s security services. And it is an international web.