It’s somehow fitting that the four month long search for one of the most wanted men in Europe, a desperate search for a terrorist by the combined might of the security forces of half a continent, had its big break because of takeaway pizza.
Salah Abdeslam, one of the last remaining suspects from the ISIS affiliated terrorist attacks in Paris last November was assumed by security forces to have disappeared to ISIS controlled territory in Syria. Instead, he was hiding in the neighbourhood in Brussels he grew up and spent most of his life in, mere metres from his former home.
The chance discovery of a fingerprint on a glass in a raid earlier in the week led to police monitoring his old stamping grounds in the district of Molenbeek. It was then that they began to suspect that one house was harbouring more people than it appeared. In a farcical turn, when the inhabitants of the house ordered what seemed like far more pizza than they could ever eat, the police swooped.
And then, not even a week later, the world awoke to the aftermath of yet another terrorist attack. This joined the litany of terrorist attacks across the world over the past twelve months, the most prominent of which in the Western media was Paris, but which encompasses multiple attacks in Turkey, in Istanbul and Ankara, as well as dozens of others.
In the rush to understand the attack (which, admittedly, is still fresh and evolving) part of what has been emphasised is the weakness of security. One of the main points that has been stressed was that bombings in Brussels airport happened “landside”; that is, before any security checks. A person carrying a bomb can walk in to an airport and leave or detonate that bomb with little to no impediment.
Another aspect of security that has been highlighted is what has been asserted to be the relative weakness of the Belgian government. Belgian administration is divided into multiple layers, such that the central Belgian government, the government of the Brussels-Capital Region, and the government of the municipality of Brussels all have some responsibility for the city. Critics say that a strong, cohesive policy from one unified government is essential to maintaining security and that this is impossible with so many overlapping spheres of power.
The answer to all of this is, of course, further crackdowns. Belgium is far behind other European countries in its securitisation process and consequently is more vulnerable to terrorist attacks, goes the narrative. A strong guiding hand from a firm central government is necessary. Because of ineffectiveness and indecision, Belgium’s security forces were underfunded, overwhelmed, incapable of stopping the attacks they knew were coming. With the current state of Belgium’s security forces, an attack was inevitable.
More money, more manpower, more intelligence tracking and listening and reading and watching, more guns, bigger guns, more opportunities and greater license to use those guns: that’s what’s needed to keep Europe safe. To keep the lives of European citizens safe.
Because apparently none of these options were considered after Paris, either a year ago after the Charlie Hebdo attacks or last November.
Or London, all the way back in 2005. Or Madrid, or countless other bombings and attacks, or attempted bombings and attacks in or outwith Europe.
Or of course during a 120 day manhunt by the combined police and intelligence services of France and Belgium, seeing as how they apparently didn’t bother to look for their target in his old neighbourhood.
None of this is to say that such policies don’t have an impact. Increasing funding and manpower, centralising intelligence, and generally empowering the security services might well work. There are almost certainly terror attacks that have been disrupted or even shut down altogether before they went further than planning. The classic problem of intelligence work is that only the failures are publicised, and without access to classified records a definitive statement on whether security policy in its current form actually works is probably unwise.
But, eh, what the hell. Securitisation is an abject failure.
Belgium is Europe’s largest per capita contributor of fighters to ISIS, with more than 400 Belgian nationals having gone to Syria. Various reasons have been cited for that by people with far more knowledge of the situation than I have, focusing in particular on Molenbeek, which has been called a “breeding ground” for Islamic fundamentalism.
25-30% of the population of Molenbeek is Muslim. Poverty rates are high, while job prospects and opportunities in general are limited if they exist at all. Policing in the area is distant and divided, done largely by white officers standing apart from the community.
On top of this, the layers of government mentioned above are there because Belgium is effectively two different states, divided between Flemish and French speakers. Belgians aren’t even integrated into Belgium, let alone immigrant communities from Africa and the Middle East. For the poor, the oppressed, and the marginalised, radical Islam is an opportunity, an answer, a goal and a promise all wrapped into one.
It’s not just ISIS that does this, either. The attacks in Ankara this year weren’t the acts of an ISIS affiliate, but Kurdish terrorists. And yet, they share parallels with Muslims in Europe. Both are socially marginalised groups in their wider communities. Sure, there are some causes of terrorism and extremism that can be tackled with security policy – radical preachers, those who are already a problem and need to be dealt with spring to mind.
But those who haven’t yet been radicalised can’t be identified, can’t be watched. The root of why they become radicalised, why people want to go and fight for ISIS or blow themselves up in an airport or gun down people in a theatre, isn’t a security problem. Asking why people want to do this leads to consideration of far more complex social problems. The why is fundamentally a social question.
Meaning that the answer to this can’t be more security. It can’t mean spending more money on security forces, cracking down further on rights and freedoms, patrolling neighbourhoods more obviously and in more force, watching people closer. It can’t be encouraging people to snitch on their peers.
Securitisation, the authorities being harder and tougher, has had consequences. In communities across Europe, it has bred resentment and disengagement and anger. There’s a reason Abdeslam was able to hide in his old neighbourhood. Further securitisation risks going further down this path, because treating European Muslims like criminals and terrorists is a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Language and attitudes are important. If the security forces continually tell the wider public that Muslims are terrorists, act like they’re criminals, that dialogue becomes internalised and accepted. It’s how we end up with a “migration crisis” that’s really about capacity and infrastructure. It discourages social cohesion, creates unconscious stigma attached to being friends with Muslims or employing them or living next to them. Stigma leads to discrimination, which leads to lack of opportunities, which leads to poverty and further social marginalisation.
And you’ll be able to guess what that leads to.
European countries have a duty to their citizens to fight terrorism in the wake of these attacks. They even arguably owe it to the world; ISIS recruits are a global menace. But the best way they can fulfil that duty isn’t to give intelligence services the power to listen to everything we do, even if that might help prevent some attacks already in the offing.
What they should spend their money on instead is giving opportunities to people in poverty, taking meaningful measures against racism and discrimination, coming up with coherent and cohesive strategies for multicultural integration and making sure these policies are implemented effectively. The best thing Belgium can do is to spend money on social programmes, education, healthcare, and redistributive justice.
Because hopefully, if people have opportunities and prospects and dreams and happiness, the idea of blowing themselves up in a crowded airport will seem just as laughably insane as it does to the rest of us.
Photo credit: HP/De Tijd