BRUSSELS (Reuters) - A firebomb attack on a Shi'ite Muslim mosque in Brussels that killed a popular local imam triggered an anti-terrorist investigation on Wednesday, but police remained uncertain of the detained suspect's identity and local Muslims baffled about his motives.
Prosecutors have released few details about the suspect, a man in his 30s who locals said entered the mosque in a rundown quarter of the city shortly after evening prayers on Monday carrying an axe, a knife and a can of petrol, which he poured over the prayer mats and ignited.
"He is saying he is a Salafi Muslim," federal prosecutor Leen Nuyts told Reuters, adding that it was one of several explanations he had offered. "He is saying that Syria could have played a part, but we have to do further investigation" before reaching that conclusion, she said.
Nuyts said the suspect had provided three different identities and efforts were still being made to establish which was correct. Locals said he was a Sunni Muslim Moroccan from Tangiers.
Sunnis are at the forefront of a bloody uprising in Syria against rule by the Alawite minority, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam. Salafis are a Sunni group advocating an especially strict form of Islam. They have been very active in parts of the Middle East but have no record of involvement in violence in Europe.
The federal prosecutor took over the Brussels case from local investigators on Wednesday, indicating that there may be a more serious political or terrorism-related motive behind it.
"It has been escalated because the law says that this should be done in cases of violence on political or ideological grounds," Nuyts said. "There are indications that this is the case."
The imam, a 46-year-old father of four named by police as Sheikh Abdallah Dadou, died of smoke inhalation as he tried to extinguish the flames, while another man escaped with injuries.
Locals in Anderlecht, a district north of Brussels' Midi station, played down any interdenominational element to the attack.
On Wednesday, mourners left flowers outside the Rida mosque, located inside a three-story townhouse on a non-descript street, not far from a synagogue and a few hundred metres from the Notre Dame Immaculee Catholic church.
The area is home to a large number of migrants from North Africa and the Maghreb, a community hit hard by the economic downturn and rising unemployment. Many windows are smashed or boarded up, and shops pull down security grills at night.
"This is what they call a problematic district because there are problems with crime and drugs," said Paul Eerdekens, a volunteer at Cosmos, a local social aid centre.
"It's a dilapidated neighbourhood," he said, but dismissed any suggestion of a history of tension between Sunni and Shi'ite Muslims.
"You heard about people going to different kinds of mosques but the tensions you've seen in other countries between Sunnis and Shi'ites has never manifested itself here in Brussels."
Locals say the neighbourhood is predominantly Sunni, making the presence of a Shi'ite mosque stand out. Residents said it was popular with Shi'ite followers from across Belgium and beyond. Sunnis make up around 80 percent of the world's Muslims.
"The mosque was a centre for people from all over Belgium, some even came from abroad," said Mirza Babar, a Pakistani who runs a general shop near the mosque and who is himself Sunni.
"They meet there for prayer and afterwards they come here, they are my customers, there were never any problems."
Belgium has a large Muslim community - approximately 6 percent of its 11 million people - with most living in Brussels, Antwerp and Charleroi. Some estimates suggest nearly a quarter of Brussels one million residents are Muslim.
The bulk of the community hails from North Africa, mostly from Morocco and Tunisia. While there have traditionally been good relations among the different denominations of Islam, there has been a history of tension between Muslims and other faiths living in poorer, inner-city neighbourhoods.
Since the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States, there has also been far tighter surveillance of the Muslim community - not only in Belgium but Germany, Italy and France - after evidence emerged of militant cells operating across Europe.
In 2004, a Belgian court convicted eight Islamists of plotting attacks and having links to al Qaeda, one of several high-profile terrorism cases in Belgium over the past decade. But Sunni-Shi'ite violence has seldom if ever played a part.
Some locals said the mosque accepted Sunni Muslims who had converted to Shi'ism, which if true might have been a motive for the attack. Asked to explain why he thought a Sunni Muslim might have firebombed the mosque, Babar was nonplussed.
"I don't know what happened to the guy, whether it was his upbringing or whether he was sick," he said.
"Mohammed says nowhere that we should kill innocent people. Such people are not real Muslims."
Reporting by Robert-Jan Bartunek and Claire Davenport; Writing by Luke Baker; Editing by Mark Heinrich