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The Belgium Attacks: How to Fight Back?

Commentary by Rohan Gunaratna
2016-03-29
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A Belgian soldier and a police officer stand guard outside Brussels Central Station following attacks in Brussels, March 22, 2016.
AFP

Europe faces a long-term strategic threat from within and outside its borders. And the threat is growing, through intensification of conflict in neighboring zones, online and off-line radicalization, and the alienation of Muslim communities within European countries.

With the militarization of its own diaspora and migrant communities, foreign fighters returning, and the unchecked growth of extremist content on social media, can Europe fight back? After the successful attacks in France in November 2015 and Belgium in March 2016, will existing and aspiring terrorists and extremists in neighboring and distant countries stage similar attacks?

Unless there is an in-depth understanding of the current and emerging threat, the Paris and Brussels episodes are likely to repeat themselves in Europe, North America, and Australasia – and beyond.

Melting pot v. mosaic

North America, Europe and Australia are migrant-receiving countries. Migrants have travelled from peaceful countries as migrant workers, and from conflict zones as refugees.

Most migrants live in their own communities when they settle in host countries – and some are influenced by developments in their home countries. Those who travelled from conflict zones are particularly susceptible to extremist messages.

And some have been radicalized. These migrants provide support to their governments or to warring ethnic and religious parties in their countries of origin. Some have tried to influence their host governments; others have travelled to the conflict zones as foreign fighters.

Generations of Muslims have migrated from the Middle East, Africa and Asia to Europe, Canada, Australia and the United States. The Americans advocated a melting pot model, while the Europeans, Canadians and Australians advocated the mosaic model.

In America, the migrants integrated and assimilated to the host communities within a generation or two. (The exceptions in the U.S. were the Irish in the New England states – some supported Irish terrorism – and the Somali community in Minnesota; some travelled to Somalia and joined al-Shabaab).

However, in Canada, Europe and Australia, the migrant and diaspora communities were not integrated and assimilated. The European, Canadian and Australian governments did not wish to interfere in their diaspora and migrant communities.

This allowed terrorist and extremist leaders to take control of some of their community organizations – like schools and mosques and media platforms. They attempted to replace mainstream Islam with the al-Qaeda and Islamic State (IS) versions of political Islam. As freedom of speech, demonstration and protest is protected in liberal democracies, Western governments permitted militant preachers to radicalize a segment of their Muslim communities.

Molenbeek, in the southwestern suburbs of Belgium, emerged as an extremist and terrorist hub, allowing radical ideologues to form political and religious groups. Their followers spread their virulent ideas creating a subculture of incitement and hatred, suspicion and prejudice. In terms of proportion, Belgium has produced more foreign fighters than any other country in Europe.

Several of the bombers and gunmen who targeted Paris in November came from Belgium, some from Molenbeek. A key suspect, who didn’t die in the Paris attacks, Salah Abdeslam, even returned to Belgium. Salah and a few of his accomplices were captured alive, many in Molenbeek.

The threat is not only in Molenbeek and in Belgium. Like a cancer, the threat has metastasized. Terrorists and extremists have built Europe-wide networks. Unless they are mapped and dismantled they will expand and the threat will continue to grow.

From Cooperation to Collaboration

After the Black September terrorist attacks on the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, European governments realized the changing nature and scale of threat.

The then European leaders raised a series of elite counter terrorism tactical units. While the Germans created Grenzschutzgruppe 9 der Bundespolizei (Border Protection Group 9 of the Federal Police or GSG9) on April 17, 1973, the French raised the Groupe d'Intervention de la Gendarmerie Nationale or GIGN.

After 9/11, European governments also built specialist capabilities within their security and intelligence services. Their counter terrorism tactical units and security and intelligence services all cooperate closely on matters of terrorism. This has allowed European security and intelligence services to prevent over a hundred terrorist attacks since 9/11.

Now, national security agencies, law enforcement authorities and military forces in Europe need to move to another level of cooperation.

They need to collaborate with each other. To fight the current and emerging threat they need to build common databases, exchange personnel, conduct joint training, mount joint operations, share expertise and resources, and experience.

As terrorists operate across borders, it is essential for governments to create platforms to share real time intelligence and act. If not, Paris and Brussels will repeat.

Prevention … and preparation

The tier one national security threat to most countries today is terrorism. Governments invest a bulk of their resources to prevent and detect attacks.

But governments should also prepare themselves to manage the effects of a successful attack. Like France yesterday, Belgium today, the nature of the current threat is that any country can be attacked at any time. Although counter-terrorism measures can indeed mitigate threats, no country is immune.

The threat to Europe will persist as long as IS persists. IS has lost numbers and territory in Syria and Iraq, but the entity has spread its ideology worldwide.

Moreover, it has successfully created satellite provinces in the Middle East, Africa, Asia and the Caucasus. Although defeating IS militarily is possible, it is significantly harder to defeat its ideology.

It is likely that after the creation of an external operations wing, IS will strike more frequently and with growing strength. Lone wolf and wolf packs can attack from within; terrorists from IS central or an IS province can enter national territories from overseas and strike.

Migrants as partners

While security and intelligence is crucial, governments need to focus heavily on engaging the migrant and diaspora communities. Governments should actively build partnerships with their community leaders, inclusive of their religious and educational institutions.

Governments should also collaborate extensively with community partners to achieve long term stability and security. Investing in communities is also essential to making them more alert and vigilant to these external threats.

This cooperation with community leaders and partners should also extend to the virtual domains, where the government needs to engage the youth and other vulnerable segments of society.

Refugees from Syria and Iraq, Libya and other conflict zones needs to be peacefully reintegrated as well. Unless migrants are positively welcomed and provided for, they will be susceptible to recruitment by extremist and terrorist ideologues and activists.

Thus, migrants should be integrated to the host communities and not permitted to live in ghettos where extremist ideologies can easily take root.

Leadership beyond rhetoric

The attacks in Belgium on March 22 killed at least 28 people and injured over 340 others. Was the successful terrorist attack in Brussels, an intelligence failure or an operational failure? Was it a government failure to develop the right intelligence or a failure to act?

The Belgian authorities and other European countries need to unite and reflect on this tragedy. It is evident that there is a need for the European countries to act decisively, in order to protect their citizens from being privy to radicalization and falling prey to terrorist attacks.

There is a need to build a more effective border management system, within the Schengen Agreement to protect the European countries from terrorism.  Lastly, there is a need to demonstrate leadership beyond rhetoric, revise the law, and build greater capabilities both in prevention and response.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and not of BenarNews.

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