One year after the Brussels attacks: How can Europe prevent the next tragedy?

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

Picture taken soon after the attack on Maelbeek metro station. [Dominique Ostyn]

Today’s anniversary of the terror attacks in Brussels on 22 March 2016 provides a perfect opportunity to reflect on the challenge posed by jihadist radicalisation and the need for effective prevention policies across Europe, write Alexander Ritzmann and Andrea Frontini.

Alexander Ritzmann is executive director of the  European Foundation
 for Democracy. Andrea Frontini is a policy analyst with the European Policy Centre. 

Decades of research on the root-causes of terrorism have produced inconclusive results. Radicalisation, a dramatic change in thinking and behaviour leading to (violent) extremism, is best described as an individual pathway, with medical doctors and engineers joining terrorist groups, along with petty criminals and poor and uneducated people. Most extremists are young men, although the number and role of women in terrorism has increased in recent years, including among those leaving to Syria and Iraq.

This puts policy makers in Europe under severe pressure. Where should thin public budgets be allocated to tackle this challenge? Should it be in better schools and education, more social workers and integration programmes, further sports and recreational activities for vulnerable youth, or bigger police, intelligence and surveillance?

While all these policy fields are important, priorities must be identified, based on which policies promise the best return for the short and longer-term security of citizens and societies at large.

If we take a closer look at the background of terrorists affiliated with the self-defined Islamic State (IS/Daesh), the already complex root-causes and pathways discussion becomes even more complicated. Comparatively, terrorists in Belgium are disproportionally undereducated, while in the UK foreign policy concerns and identity crises feature as driving factors in the radicalisation process. In Germany, most terrorists had committed criminal offences before joining IS, while in France discrimination of Muslims is highlighted as a dominant factor. In the Netherlands, instead, a disproportionally high number of terrorists are considered mentally ill.

Since lack of education, poverty or discrimination were often stressed as key drivers in the pathways of Europe-based terrorists, why do only 0.01%, or less, of socio-economically marginalised groups and communities actually radicalise?

Given such diverse factors, policymakers should focus on the two common denominators that are almost identical in all EU member states.

First, networks and hotbeds. The majority of recruits – in many European countries, up to 80% – have been drawn to IS through a Salafist network. These networks were visible, operated openly on the streets, in mosques, cultural centres, as well as online. Yet, their significance was underestimated by governments and civil society alike. “Sharia for Belgium”, the “Read” campaign in Germany, and other similar Salafist groups, undertook their grooming of European youth in plain sight.

Second, ideology and extremist narratives. These factors are the very glue that binds the engineer to the petty criminal, which justifies and calls for violence and mass atrocities in the name of an extremist interpretation of Islam. While many terrorists do not know much about religion, IS’s customised ideology is a key recruiting tool, providing sub-narratives both for those willing to help and build a Caliphate, and for those seeking adventure and moral justification for the killing of their enemies.

The lesson to be learned here is not to permit groups and networks to operate unchallenged in European communities that openly call for anti-liberal societies, promoting hate, intolerance and exclusion. This is an equally relevant finding in the context of the increasing strength of right-wing extremism and neo-Nazi groups, where recruitment, sometimes less organised, but not less dangerous, is on the rise.

Furthermore, the fact that jihadist radicalisation and terrorism are not evenly spread across countries, but rather grow in specific cities or neighbourhoods, allows policymakers to target measures and mobilise resources to strengthen the resilience of European societies. A key action to be taken, as a first step, should be improving relations and building trust between public authorities and Muslim communities in order to ensure open and mutual exchange of information on relevant issues.

Secondly, the active role of civil society organisations (CSOs) in prevention needs to be strengthened further. Qualified CSOs can identify and empower credible voices and positive role models in vulnerable communities who will then speak out early on against those who are promoting extremist ideologies. If the “good guys” have the necessary training and are part of a network they can rely on, the chances of keeping European societies safe in the future will increase dramatically.

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