Two years after the Brussels attacks, the terrorist threat remains very real

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

Military personnel in front of the Brussels Justice Palace as terror suspects Salah Abdeslam and Sofiane Ayari, also known as Amine Choukri, face the second day of thier trial in Brussels, Belgium, 05 February 2018. [EPA-EFE/STEPHANIE LECOCQ]

Returning foreign fighters, along with home-grown radicals, are heightening concerns that further attacks could be afoot. Dr. Demir Murat Seyrek and Amanda Paul argue there is room to beef-up security measures without creating a “police state” and maintaining respect for individual rights and liberties.

Dr. Demir Murat Seyrek is Senior Policy Advisor at the European Foundation for Democracy.  Amanda Paul is Senior Policy Analyst at the European Policy Centre (EPC).

March 22 marks the second anniversary of the Brussels attacks which left 32 people dead and injured more than 300. While the so-called “Islamic State” (ISIS) may have been losing ground in Syria, jihadist radicalisation remains a major threat for Belgium and Europe.

Returning foreign fighters, along with home-grown radicals, are heightening concerns that further attacks could be afoot. EU Counter Terrorism Coordinator, Gilles de Kerchove, estimates that there are more than 50,000 radical Islamists in Europe, including more than 2,000 in Belgium.

Without doubt, during the past two years important steps have been taken in Belgium and at EU level to tackle the problem. Threat awareness has increased across the board including amongst political parties, many of which had previously been in denial over the issue. New security measures, better intelligence sharing at different levels, and new cooperation mechanisms with third countries have also been implemented.

Still, there is room to further beef-up these measures without creating a “police state” and maintaining respect for individual rights and liberties. For example, reform of the Schengen Information System will help EU governments exchange information faster and better. Yet, while these measures are important in thwarting possible attacks, they will not avert radicalisation in the mid to long term. The latter needs to be tackled at its roots.

Preventing radicalisation is crucial to eliminating the threat of terrorism. Consequently, the term “prevention” has become a buzz word for governments, the EU, civil society and experts and it has led to an avalanche of initiatives. With significant funding available, especially at EU level, working on the topic has also become “a la mode” for many organisations. While there are effective prevention initiatives, there are also many with fancy names and big budgets which have had little or no impact.

While prevention is the right answer, the right tools are necessary to make a real difference. For example, more money should be injected into grassroots initiatives. While they are often small and not necessarily as professional as some bigger NGOs, their work is usually very effective. Supporting likeminded individuals and groups within Muslim communities as well as working with the role models is crucial as these people are credible messengers, who are taken seriously, particularly by young people.

Improving integration policies across Europe, many of which have to a large extent failed, is also crucial. Sharing good practices from different European countries is a starting point. New policies should empower the feeling of belonging to the country and Europe. Identity crisis makes people far more vulnerable to radical ideas and ideologies. We need to update the narratives about what it means to be Belgian, French, German, British, Italian in a way that is inclusive, making Muslim communities in Europe feel that they can be Muslim but European too. Different cultural and religious traditions should be embraced and not feared.

Education – especially what you teach – is pivotal in that regard. More emphasis must be given to concepts such as empathy, plurality, diversity, and dialogue. We should also not shy away from teaching European values, which are the basis of individual rights and liberties. Our politicians have been sacrificing many of these values. However, if Europe is to have a future as a free society, we need to go back to the factory settings and promote these values to create new generations of European, coming from different social, economic, cultural, and religious backgrounds but abiding by similar values.

A strong ideology is the cement of all radical ideas. This is the case for far-right and far-left and it is not different when it comes to the radical Islamist groups. There is a need to better understand and recognise the role played by ideology, which uses and abuses all above mentioned problems and others in order to justify violence. While ISIS is losing, the radical ideology behind ISIS is still very strong. We need to tackle this ideology to prevent jihadist radicalisation in Europe and beyond.

Cutting sources of funding for terrorism and terrorist networks is also vitally important. On 26 February 2018, a European Parliament report recommended a number of different measures that can be taken which the EU and its member states should take on board.  This includes stepping up the monitoring of suspicious organisations engaged in these kind of activities – illicit trade, smuggling, counterfeiting, and fraudulent practices via the formulation of joint investigation teams with Europol. The EU and its member states should take

Eradicating radicalisation needs a joined-up approach that incorporates public bodies at both international, national, and local levels, social services, teachers, prisons workers, and local communities. Only by working together will we be able to exterminate this lethal phenomenon. It is a complex matter with no quick fix, especially after decades of obliviousness. The long run is not an attractive horizon for politicians who are often obsessed with the more immediate need to be re-elected. Nevertheless, we need a long-term vision with a clear strategy to prevent this threat.

EU anti-terror czar: ‘The threat is coming from inside Europe’

A year after the Brussels attacks, Gilles de Kerchove told EURACTIV.com about the fast pace of development of EU security policy, calling for the “systematic use of biometrics” and “batch comparison” of databases in order to boost security in the Schengen area.

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