The terrorist attacks at the Brussels airport and on an inner city subway line demonstrate yet again how difficult it is to defend against them. The bombs may have been relatively crude and the attacks conducted prematurely as a result of recent police raids on suspected terrorist hideouts, but the symbolic impact of wanton death and destruction in the heart of the European Community was designed to polarise the relations between Muslims and non-Muslims within it as well as undermine public confidence in the ability of security services to thwart even relatively low-level atrocities such as these.
All too often public attention focuses on how to prevent this type of attack rather than on its underlying causes. In turn, it is easier to blame "extremists" and the ideologies that motivate them rather than consider the background conditions that led to their radicalisation.
In Belgium as well as France, there are a large number of second-generation males of North African descent who are profoundly alienated and disenchanted with their place in society. Devoid of education and economic opportunity, they constitute a seething mass of resentment that finds its expression in anti-establishment behaviour, be it petty criminality, counter-cultural music or irregular armed warfare. These are what Marx called "lumpenproletarians", people who see themselves as having no standing or status in society, and who have provided fertile recruiting grounds for revolutionaries and militants of many persuasions for centuries.
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Outside of Brussels is a suburb - some would call it a ghetto - called Molenbeek that is overwhelmingly Moroccan and Turkish in demographic heritage, to which have been added more recent migrants from North Africa and the Levant. It is a disadvantaged place, devoid of opportunity and hope. Authorities estimate that there are 100 jihadists, including returned Daesh fighters, living in Molenbeek, and that these do not include the 500 Belgian citizens who have gone to fight for Daesh in the battlefields of Syria, Iraq and Libya.
Last week, Belgian police raided suspected extremist hideouts in Molenbeek, killing one suspect and capturing the one surviving member of the group that conducted the Paris terrorist attacks last year. These individuals had travelled unimpeded between France and Belgium in the months before and after the Paris attacks, as had other members of the Paris assault group. The Belgian authorities issued a public warning about an imminent terrorist attack in the wake of the raids, and yet the Belgian public paid little attention to it. It appears that not only are extremists able to move freely and find refuge in the disadvantaged parts of Brussels, but the Belgian public has become jaded about the threat posed by domestic terrorists (because, as in the case of Paris, the perpetrators are believed to be Belgian and French nationals, not recent migrants).
That means that the heart of the darkness that is Islamic terrorism in Europe comes more from within than from without, even if the latter contributes to the skillset employed by the former.
Counter-terrorism involves both proactive as well as reactive measures. Stepping up security and conducting manhunts and raids are reactive measures to a clear and present danger. Less visible, and in the Belgian case less effective, are the proactive measures designed to address the roots causes of violent radicalisation. That involves priority addressing of the issues that lead to the rise of a disenchanted lumpenproletariat susceptible to the recruiting appeals of extremists groups like Daesh. It also involves developing human intelligence networks within the vulnerable communities so as to be able to discern the blow-hards from those willing to blow up themselves and others in pursuit of an ideological cause. For all the vaunted technological capabilities of signals intelligence agencies, it is the element of human volition that needs to be assessed most closely when it comes to terrorist networks, and that is the job of human intelligence agencies with deep roots in the communities upon which extremists prey.
Unfortunately, due to a lack of government emphasis and the insularity of the communities in question, neither the Belgian or French human intelligence services have had the ability to effectively penetrate domestic terrorist networks with ties to Daesh and al-Qaeda. This is compounded by the decentralised, autonomous and small group or lone wolf nature of contemporary terrorist operations. It is only when these commonly radicalised but tactically independent networks move from the planning to the execution phase of their operations that they are detected. By then, it is too late to do anything but react.
In order to defeat violent extremism, Islamic or otherwise, the security authorities of Europe and elsewhere need to develop a holistic counter-terrorism strategy that is collective and co-operative as well as proactive and reactive. They may be getting a late start in doing so, but it is only via such a strategy that both the cause and the effects of terrorism can be addressed and overcome.
- Strategic analyst Paul G. Buchanan is the Founding Director of 36th-Parallel Assessments, a geopolitical risk consultancy (36th-parallel.com).