Alon Ben-Meir: Why the Brussels attack was all but inevitable
These attacks may well increase in frequency and intensity in many European cities where citizens travel freely and violent extremists among them can plot attacks without early detection. Although a substantial increase in internal security personnel, intelligence gathering and sharing between the European community, and better preparedness are critically important, they will not in and of themselves drastically stem such terrorist attacks. The European Union must realize that while the fight against ISIS-inspired terrorists must be relentless, they must simultaneously address the root causes that motivate young Muslims, mostly nationals of their respective European countries, to commit such atrocities.
There are three fronts on which violent extremism must concurrently be fought: defeating ISIS, improving the socioeconomic and political conditions in the Arab states, and integrating young Muslims into their European social milieu. The focus of this article is on the lack of integration, which remains glaringly evident; the EU has failed to find a viable solution to this problem without which no security measure, however sophisticated and extensive, will suffice.
A brief review of the first two fronts is necessary as all three are entwined and directly impact one another:
The prerequisite of defeating ISIS
Although ISIS has suffered serious setbacks in recent months, the group remains a powerful entity that will continue to expand its outreach outside Iraq and Syria. Dozens of cells have already been established in many European countries where hundreds of operatives live. Many of these young Muslims have volunteered to join the ranks of ISIS and return to their European countries fully trained and religiously charged to conduct acts of terror in the name of God, often in a time and place of their own choice. Voltaire put it succinctly when he said: “What can you say to a man who tells you that he prefers obeying God rather than men, and that as a result he’s certain he’ll go to heaven if he cuts your throat?”
Although the destruction of ISIS will not automatically end its attacks, they will certainly be substantially reduced in number and frequency as many of these recruits become increasingly demoralized, as romanticism about the establishment of a caliphate will evaporate. Moreover, the destruction of ISIS will also send a clear message to other violent extremist groups that their fate will be no different than that of ISIS.
Though there is an aversion to the introduction of ground troops, despite its recent retreat and loss of territory, ISIS will not be defeated from the air alone. While Iraqi and Syrian troops have made major progress in the fight against ISIS, additional ground troops including Arab and Turkish contingents sufficient in number and capabilities are needed to stop ISIS in its tracks. Short of that, ISIS will have more time to recruit, train, and implant an increasing number of cells in Europe and the Middle East that will continue to terrorize the EU, disrupt the normalcy of life, paralyze cities such as Paris and Brussels, and cause havoc and uncertainty for years, if not decades, to come.
Finally, now that the campaign to reclaim Mosul has started, there is no better time to introduce such ground forces to prevent a protracted campaign that could inflict tens of thousands of civilian casualties, as most ISIS fighters are imbedded among civilians. As such, ISIS may well fight to the last man because the loss of Mosul would spell the near-end of ISIS in Iraq.
The need for socio-economic and political reforms in the Arab states
The Arab states must realize that the root causes of radicalization are rooted in their internal socioeconomic inequality and political disorder, and only by undertaking systematic and consistent measures to cure this domestic malaise will violent radicalization abate. The decades-long suppression, suffering, and servitude that the Arab masses, especially the young, have endured under largely corrupt and uncaring leaders with an insatiable hunger for power in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Egypt, Yemen, and others has reached a new tipping point. As long as grievances, hopelessness, and desolation prevail, they will continue to provide fertile ground for radical Islamists to step in and capitalize on public despair.
Therefore, Arab states must either embark now on social, economic, and political reforms that offer a new horizon and hope for a better and brighter future, or be swept away by escalating violent extremism that will destroy the political foundation on which these regimes rest—Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Yemen provide glaring examples. In order to do this, the Arab states must first begin to reduce the growing gap between rich and poor. Nothing is more devastating than witnessing how the wealthy in most Arab states ride on the backs of the poor, and how governments do next to nothing to lift the majority of the people from abject poverty and despair.
Contrary to Western advocacy, stemming radicalization does not rest as much on democratic reform but on a commitment to human rights. The Arab youth are more concerned with job opportunities and living with dignity, than being given the right to vote while still living in despondency and hopelessness. The Arab states face an unprecedented challenge posed by violent extremism. In December 2015, Saudi Arabia announced the formation of the Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism composed of 34 nations (mostly Muslim states). However effective these forces may be, it will make no more than a minor dent in the fight against extremism.
In addition to military and security measures, the Arab states must pay far greater attention to the socio-economic malaise that has infected their society, which are the root causes behind radicalism. They must provide what their youth need the most—hope, job opportunities, social justice, and a life of dignity. Western powers must encourage and support reforms in these areas because the failure of the Arab states to change direction will only continue to destabilize these countries and will directly affect the Western battle against violent extremism.
The lack of integration within the European community
Western governments are struggling to find out what motivates young Muslims, many of whom are well-to-do and educated, to leave their sheltered lives only to join radical organizations that offer an elusive goal and the prospect of violent death. It appears that the determining factor behind the rise of radicalization of Muslim youth in Europe is the absence of integration, by choice or design, of young Muslims into the mainstream of their respective Western countries, which explains why the Brussels attack was all but inevitable.
During my most recent visit to Brussels only a few weeks ago, I was amazed that while many top EU officials spoke about the need to appropriate more resources to buttress the internal security apparatus, little mention was made about the need to integrate young Muslims into their communities and provide the funding required to that end. Integration must be the engine that propels deradicalization, and of necessity it takes a host of socioeconomic, religious, and political measures to mitigate the vulnerabilities in these areas that young European Muslims experience.
In relative terms, the rise of violent extremism is only at the early stages, and if the West wants to stem the flow of volunteers to these ruthless groups, Western countries should make a concerted effort to engage and understand the nuances of their Muslim communities, especially the families from which these volunteers are coming.
The psychological dimension of violent extremism needs to be understood, as there is certainly no single road to radicalization – some join violent radical groups to acquire a sense of belonging, others seek to shed their daily indignities, some are swayed by the desire for recognition or integration, others are drawn by the lure of adventure or heroism, and yet others because they have no other outlet to vent their grievances in the absence of due justice or any access to the political process.
The threat emanating today from ISIS, al-Qaeda, and other Islamist groups is inspired by religious teachings, distorted under the guise of defending purist Sunni Islam, which ultimately aims to infect susceptible Muslim youth to whom religion provides an escape and a sense of belonging.
Many of the young men and women who live in Western countries feel increasingly marginalized economically, socially, and politically, and are particularly vulnerable as they are often in transitional stages in their lives, whether as immigrants, students in search of friends, job seekers, etc. On the whole, they are in need of an outlet to vent their frustration, and consequently, they become easy prey for extremists seeking new recruits in mosques and online.
There is, however, a common denominator behind most of the causes that radicalize Muslim youth, which is the lack of integration into their new social milieu, caused by:
First: Disinterest in being integrated, as many young Muslims are living in a bubble and are not encouraged to step out beyond their immediate circle of peers and family. This is further compounded in situations where extremism runs deep in a particular family, or where they have certain gripes against the socio-political milieu in which they live;
Second: No deliberate effort by governments to integrate Muslim youth into general society, a condition further aggravated by entrenched prejudices in most West European countries, such as Britain and France. Citizens of foreign descent in these states are often identified and remain as ‘foreigners,’ regardless of how long they have been living in their adopted countries, even if they are second or third generation citizens;
Third: The growing pervasiveness of Islamophobia among Europeans, precipitated by the rise of violent extremists and the seemingly endless bloodshed between Muslim communities and Westerners, which has produced a conscious and unconscious repudiation of anything related to Muslims in general;
And fourth, a deeper, growing sense of alienation, which is the antithesis to inclusiveness, leading young Muslims in particular to find ways to resist and defy rather than seek new opportunities to integrate and become loyal nationals of their adopted countries. Generally, West European Muslims seek to maintain their identity and can still do so through integration rather than assimilation, where their identity as Muslim is not lost. Western European countries must also take specific steps to ensure that those who have joined and subsequently return are deradicalized and become useful citizens who can dissuade others from following their path.
There are no quick fixes for this alarming development, and no amount of law enforcement will halt the flow of West European Muslim volunteers to join the ranks of violent extremists other than inclusion, which must encompass the following:
1 – No country directly or indirectly affected by violent extremism can afford to be long on talking and short on funding. There is probably nothing more important than the need to appropriate a substantial amount of money and human resources to meet this unprecedented challenge, regardless of how costly and how long it might take;
2 – Adopt a new public narrative by using a strategic way to communicate utilizing every conceivable social media outlet to counter extremists with facts. Government officials must avoid moral preaching but employ moral arguments, and address the perception of Western nations assailing Muslims, which leads the young to seek justice through violence;
3 – Develop community service programs to introduce young Muslims to the larger community of their Western peers and begin a process of integration in which they develop personal interests to fill the social, economic, and political emptiness they feel;
4 – Invite credible and respected voices from the Muslim world (which have thus far done little to discredit the messages of the extremists) to teach that there is no path to glory in death, that joining such violent groups only reinforces the vicious cycle of death and destruction, and that there is no martyrdom in their senseless self-sacrifices;
5 – Encourage young Muslims to join sports activities and provide opportunities to show off their talent and ability to excel, while supporting those who seek to establish their social identity and be recognized;
6 – Prevent prisons from becoming incubators for new terrorists by rehabilitating prisoners through community programs, schooling, professional enhancements, and assigning of responsibility within the prison setting; nearly 80 percent of prisoners who went through such rigorous programs in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Yemen ended up rehabilitated and became role models for other prisoners to emulate;
7 – Foster the desire of young Muslims to participate in local political discussion groups, to become part of any positive changes to advance the interests of their communities, enhance their self-esteem, and prevent the intellectual stagnation Bertrand Russell spoke to: “Most people would die sooner than think—in fact they do so”;
8 – Develop international exchange programs to expose young Muslims to what is happening in other communities, areas of social and economic progress, and new innovations and ideas that can be duplicated to benefit their own families and communities.
Integration is a long-term process, and there may be no instant gratification, but no country can afford to wait, as integration can prevent the prohibitive costs in blood and treasure now and at a later date that are the result of yet another terrorist attack.
Failure is not an option as the consequences will be extraordinarily dire. A state of constant alarm, emergencies, and terrorism will become a way of life, haunting Western democracies and violently destabilizing the Middle East for decades to come.
Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is a professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches courses on international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies. Online at alonben-meir.com.