The broader context of terrorism in Europe
Barcelona - More people were killed or injured in terrorist attacks in the United States in 2001, Madrid in 2004 and London in 2005 but the perpetrators, members of al-Qaeda, were thwarted in further attempts to mount spectacular attacks.
Since the terrorist attacks on Paris in 2015 and Brussels in March, the Islamic State (ISIS) has become a more potent threat. Unlike its predecessor, it does not hold out in the vastness of Afghanistan but has used the Syrian civil war to train more than 5,000 sympathisers and build a network to foment violence across Europe.
We may bemoan the threat to our civil liberties that this has entailed and wonder why such restrictions do not appear to have improved our security. It is important, however, that the response of political leaders should not increase alarm and spread more despondency. Unfortunately, it is often petulant, misinformed and simply downright demagogic.
European political leaders, notably in France, have responded by staging a public debate that is framed in terms of a “war of identities”, if not a “war of civilisations”. Much of the media has responded eagerly.
Home searches, house arrests of people suspected of Salafism and increased surveillance have promoted a public discourse that stigmatises mosques and Islam.
Our leaders forget the terrorists met in prison, not in mosques. Salah Abdeslam can be seen in videos drinking alcohol in a night club in Brussels recently. He may wrap himself in Islam, as General Franco waved the banner of the Catholic Church, but that does not make him a true believer.
The French prime minister is a keen player of this game but he is focusing on the wrong target. We certainly need surveillance and policing to be shared more effectively in Europe; we certainly need to degrade ISIS in Syria, Iraq and Libya but, as neither the United States nor the European Union are prepared to put boots on the ground, we must prepare for the long haul.
The kamikaze that played a key role in both capitals were mostly well known to the French and Belgian police and security services. They belonged to networks of organised crime, be it theft, armed robbery or drugs that operate within the framework of poor ghettos where most young people are poorly educated and unemployment often runs to 50%.
Over the past five years, they have often deviated towards an overtly religious-inspired form of behaviour. Their basic mindset does however seem to have been shaped by watching violent video games that glamorise the bad guy and films on gangland rather than by any deep religious call. They have become local mafia bosses who operate in tightly knit ethnic communities where omerta is the rule, as is true in Sicily and Northern Ireland.
France’s public discourse is out of kilter with reality. Religious radicalisation was a good take on what was going on in the 1990s. Jihadists then had a revolutionary and anti-capitalist view of the world and were convinced that armed struggle was the answer to the ills of the world. In that they were not dissimilar to many extreme left-wing groups in Europe and the United States. The foot soldiers of this type of terrorism agreed with the thinking heads of al-Qaeda that the answer lay in returning to the ways of Islam as it was practised at the time of the Prophet Mohammad.
By the turn of the millennium, however, two distinct phenomena had appeared. First were Salafis who preached and practised a very radical “way of living”, including women adopting the veil, that was peaceful in intent even when it offended most Europeans. The second was adopted by young men and women who do not speak classical Arabic and was closer to a “war of identities” than any religious theology.
Lack of understanding of these two strands of thought and behaviour is characteristic of the reaction of many European political leaders and media. Furthermore, it mirrors the world view ISIS promotes. It amounts to falling into their propaganda trap.
Eschewing clichés is essential to understanding the wave of violence Europe is facing. The very word “radicalisation” refers to a police category not to an academic attempt to understand the peculiarity of jihadist commitment. This must be, first of all, placed in a broader context of social revolts that, from Madrid to Occupy Wall Street, have brought onto the streets of Europe and America hundreds of thousands of young people protesting against growing income disparities brought on by economic globalisation and the fallout of the 2008 financial crisis.
These people felt they could no longer articulate their hopes and needs through traditional political parties, trade unions or churches. The Arab revolts resulted in huge disenchantment (Tunisia), bloody repression (Egypt) or bloody chaos (Yemen, Libya and Syria).
Politicians in Europe, the United States and beyond appear incapable of providing solutions to ever-more complicated problems that confront the people they rule or represent. Hence the rise of xenophobic or separatist parties in Britain, France, Germany and Spain.
The corruption of national politicians in many European countries — notably Belgium, Italy and Spain — adds to the sense of disarray. Belgium appears very much as a failed state, one in which Walloons and Flemish people have never identified with the country of Belgium, where the security forces — whose resources are limited — and the courts are dysfunctional, where poorer people, including those who hailed from the ghetto of Molenbeek have no hope of a better future. Alongside such outsiders are an army of well-paid European and NATO civil servants and well-heeled, middle- and upper-middle-class people who must appear to their poor neighbours like zombies from another planet.
The poorer districts of Brussels are not dissimilar from those that ring Paris, except that in France there is a greater sense of belonging to a French nation than in Belgium; 20% of recruits to the French Army are Muslim and none have deserted in recent years.
Brussels has emerged as the jihadist centre of Europe after British authorities clamped down on radical Islamic groups after the bombing of the London underground in 2005. Geographically, Europe’s diplomatic capital is close to two major airport hubs (Frankfurt and Paris), two major ports (Antwerp and Rotterdam) and has excellent train connections. Weapons can be purchased much more easily in Belgium than in neighbouring countries. ISIS will be hard put to find such an attractive base from which to operate in the future.
Onto this rich soil have been thrown the seeds of trouble — endless TV and social media pictures of the brutalities of war in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria that Western journalists are prone to portray as related to Islam when raw power politics are usually at play.
Islam is conflated in so many ways by European, US and Arab politicians that one of the world’s great religions has been turned into the ultimate cliché. For many in the West, adherence to Islam explains why the Middle East has failed to adapt to the modern world, to democracy. Conversely, a deadly eschatology has taken root in the minds of some young men, mostly but not all Muslims, who see no hope on this Earth and crave martyrdom.
For decades, Europe’s political class and media, with some exceptions, have underestimated the economic and social deprivation in their midst and not just that endured by their Muslim compatriots. They have underestimated the growth of jihadist movements.
Others have sought to promote a form of multiculturalism that explains and excuses forms of behaviour — vis-à-vis women in particular — that are far from admitted norms in Europe. They never stop apologising for Europe’s colonial behaviour but fail to understand that there is a battle royal going on for the soul of many Arab, Berber, Turkish and Iranian people. They never mention the disastrous effects of Saudi Wahhabism, an extreme form of Islam that a kingdom — one of their main purchasers of weapons — has spent an estimated $50 billion-$70 billion propagating across the world since the mosque in Medina was seized by fanatics in 1979.
Many Muslim men and women are fighting for greater separation between state and religion, greater personal freedom to express themselves and less conformity to old social rules. That multifaceted fight meshes with what promises to be a bloody struggle between and within Middle Eastern and North African states, many of whose citizens want to belong to the modern world. What happens to Europeans of Muslim descent is not only crucial to the future of Europe but will help define the future of the Middle East.