In The Field: Michelle Gagnon

The story behind CBC's The Extremes is one of sticking with a story. 

On the morning of March 22, 2016, two explosions tore through Brussels' Zaventem airport. Just over an hour later, another at the Maelbeck metro station. Both, obvious soft targets strategically chosen to strike as global a population as possible. 

32 were killed, another 300 injured. 

Such attacks have become increasingly frequent, and their coverage increasingly familiar. And, as the news cycle continues to accelerate, offering up-to-the minute details about culprits and victims and damage done, the need for context and analysis is ever greater, especially for a nightly newscast. 

The Extremes was an attempt to offer some - to answer why Brussels, why now - that very same day. But that kind of context isn't possible without our own background. 

Understanding the strategy behind the strike, the particularities of the place and the specific hurdles to the investigation can only come from following a story and maintaining contacts. 

In this case, not only did the team behind The Extremes have history covering Islamic extremism, but all members had been deployed to Brussels in November 2015 following the attack on Paris.

After two days covering the aftermath in Paris, we were redirected to Brussels. Information had emerged that several involved in the coordinated attacks on Paris were Brussels natives, most notably Saleh Abdeslam, the sole surviving assailant still on the loose. 

We were asked to piece together the connections for a special episode of the Fifth Estate. 

One of our first moves was to reach out to Pieter van Ostayen. An historian and Arabist, van Ostayen has been tracking Belgium's foreign fighters for years. 

We met him in his small apartment in Mechelen, Belgium. There, he explained the timeline of radicalization in Belgium, identifying the radical clerics responsible, even mapping their movements along the Antwerp-Brussels rail line, or where so many Belgian foreign fighters are from. 

The five Belgians implicated in the attack on Paris were from Brussels, and most from a small downtown neighbourhood called Molenbeek. Within days, international media descended on the predominantly Muslim neighbourhood. 

Many in Molenbeek remain distrustful of police and leery of outsiders, which meant the first thing we needed was a way in. 

We enlisted the help of two Arabic-speaking local journalists, and called in CBC producer Nazim Baksh.

Baksh has been working on Islamic extremism for decades now and has amassed extensive contacts internationally.

We set out in search of anyone who knew the attackers. We canvassed the streets of Molenbeek, knocked on doors at their family homes and businesses, and attended Friday prayers at the local mosque. Ultimately, it was being there, on the street, talking to anyone who would, that led us to those who had something to say.

Besieged by media attention, daily raids, and a state of emergency that brought an unseen police and military presence into its streets, the residents of Molenbeek tired. 

Most had been startled by the connection in the first place. But some knew the Abdeslam brothers and their co-conspirators. A few even claimed to be related. 

Averse to any on-camera conversation, a few eventually agreed to be interviewed, either brashly telling us of their support or, like Jamal in The Extremes, of their disdain. Two young men we met in a restaurant around the corner from the mosque suggested that Saleh Abdeslam, the surviving attacker, was likely nearby and should stay hidden. 

Months later and only days before the bombs blew up in the airport and subway, they were proven right. Saleh Abdeslam was arrested just across the street from that very same restaurant. 

By then, we were long gone from Brussels, but had kept following the story of the months-long manhunt for Abdeslam, as well as the ups and downs in Brussels. The city had remained under a state of emergency, its officials expecting that, inevitably, it too would be targeted. 

An interview with a former security adviser to the former Belgian PM detailed that thinking. 

Brice de Ruyver argued that Europe would likely become increasingly militarized and less accepting, partly and simply because intelligence sharing remained hamstrung by endless EU regulations and diverging national interests. 

Basically, getting ahead of the problem is nearly impossible. 

So, it was the background and the contacts for a story that started in Paris that informed our understanding of what happened in Brussels on March 22, 2016 and the item we aired that night.  

Michelle Gagnon is a producer for CBC News. She has covered domestic and international affairs, including the European economic crisis, the mass migration of refugees, and the Paris and Brussels attacks.

The recipients in the OPEN BROADCAST NEWS category Adrienne Arsenault, Michelle Gagnon, Nazim Baksh

The Extremes

CBC News – The National


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