Inside the Brussels gym that’s lost five boxers to ISIS, but is saving thousands more

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Yasine, 26, is a pretty good boxer. But if things had turned out just a little differently, he might have been a more pernicious kind of fighter. He works out at the Brussels Boxing Academy, a Belgian gym that trains hundreds of young people in the sweet science every year — and that has lost a handful of them to extremism of the sort responsible for Tuesday’s deadly terror attacks in the city’s airport and metro system.

Yasine — who did not give his last name — said he knew some of the five boxers who ended up joining ISIS. At least one wound up dead. One was arrested in connection with last year’s terror attacks in Paris. But Yasine says the gym saved him from following a similar path.

“If it didn’t exist, I would have gone bad. Yes, yes, for sure,” Yasine told Fusion investigative correspondent Mariana van Zeller. “That was the problem, I was violent because I didn’t know how to channel my energy. I have a lot of energy.”

More foreign fighters come from Belgium to join ISIS than any other nation in Europe. On the heels of Tuesday’s terror attacks in Brussels, the media has focused on the country’s radicalization problem — particularly on the city’s largely immigrant Molenbeek neighborhood, which has been a fertile recruiting ground for ISIS and other extremist Islamic groups.

As part of its upcoming hourlong documentary on extremism in Europe, Fusion’s investigative team traveled around Molenbeek and visited Brussels Boxing Academy, where founder and head trainer Tom Flachet uses the sport to give thousands more young people hope for a better life, away from crime and violence.

“The events in Paris and Brussels show us that youth work is more than ever necessary,” the Academy’s website states. “More and more young people are susceptible to radical ideas with crazy effects. Time for real change, addressing the roots of the problem!”

Many of the youths Flachet works with “have a shitty life,” he said; immigrants from nations like Morocco, with dark skin, thick accents, and Muslim faith, can find themselves ostracized, bereft of work to occupy their time or hope for a better life.

“If you live in a society that doesn’t respect you, where you are a victim of racism,” Flachet said, “isolating yourself is very easy.

“I don’t feel, in Molenbeek, a real desire to help these guys,” Flachet said. But “boxing is bringing us together.”

Part of the key, Yasine said, was to provide an environment that’s nonjudgmental, but still structured. “We take young people from the neighborhoods and we bring them here and we spend time with them,” he said. “We educate them. It’s like a school.”

Nevertheless, the media has understandably focused on the gym’s alumni who went over to ISIS.

“I know them and honestly in the context of this hall, they are good people,” Yasine said. “It’s true that they had been impressionable, they have done bad things, really bad, and I condemn all these things because those aren’t things one should do. But I will let the authorities do their duties.

“I for my part know them on a personal level and they are good people. But unfortunately they have taken a bad path. And I could have taken this bad path.”

But he didn’t, and now he has a job and a family of his own. Flachet said that consistent engagement in the gym’s community of support made all the difference for countless success stories like Yasine.

“I know there are five who went to war, but I don’t know how many stayed here because of our work,” Flachet said.

To learn more, watch The Naked Truth: Radicals Rising, Fusion’s hourlong investigative documentary on right-wing and Islamist extremists battling for Europe, on Sunday, March 27 at 8 p.m. EDT on Fusion.

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