THE latest attack by Islamist terrorists in Brussels has many asking whether it is possible for Western intelligence agencies to get on top of this continuing threat.
It is known that there is a deeply embedded network of Islamist terrorists which appears to be able to strike at will with devastating consequences, but it is not known why the attacks are occurring.
The attacks, recently in Paris, now in Belgium, have been carried out by small groups of Belgian and French-based Islamist militants with links to violent Islamist organisations in Syria and Iraq, including the self-proclaimed Islamic State.
Over the past four years, Belgium has, proportionately, seen more of its young Muslims join militant Islamist organisations than any other European country.
The flow of militants to the Middle-east reflects the long-term establishment of Muslim ghettos in Belgium, such as those in the municipality of Molenbeek, west of Brussel’s centre. This tightly packed suburb is known for its disproportionately high Muslim population, high population density, high levels of unemployment, transient population and poverty. It is a perfect environment for producing disaffected Muslim youth.
In Molenbeek, and other places like it in Europe, peer group dissemination of a violent, fundamentalist interpretation of Sunni Islam has taken hold. This has led to thousands of young Muslim men to join violent Islamist groups in the Middle-East, with some returning to recruit and train others, and to stage attacks.
There’s more than one theory as to why European cities are being targeted in response to a war ostensibly being fought in the Middle-East. The first explanation is that the attacks in Brussels and France, and in Spain and the UK before them, are simply about revenge. That appeals to a simple logic, but is inadequate of itself.
Acts of terrorism have traditionally sought specific outcomes, such as the ending of an occupation, a war or to achieve a change of government. None of these have been claimed for the Brussels and Paris attacks, and Belgium had left the anti-Islamic State bombing campaign last year.
What continues, however, to be forgotten about terrorist attacks is they are almost always designed to produce a backlash. This backlash is in turn intended to further alienate previously less disaffected groups. If Islamist terrorists want to boost their numbers, what can be portrayed as an anti-Muslim crackdown is their best recruiting tool.
The response by police and other agencies in areas such as Molenbeek has already led to many locals feeling as though they are under siege. This feeling of siege is now likely to deepen.
Added to a populist anti-Muslim sentiment in many European countries, in large part spurred by events such as the Brussels and Paris attacks, many European Muslims feel they are being pushed into an ‘us versus them’ situation, regardless of their desire for such division.
This then goes to what has been termed as a battle for the heart and soul of Islam, between what outsiders term ‘moderate’ and ‘radical’ Muslims. This is complicated by a belief within Islam that an attack on a Muslim because of their religion equates to an attack on the religion itself and therefore an attack on all Muslims. All ‘good’ Muslims must, therefore, unite to the cause.
Violent Islamists are, globally, growing in number and influence. The more they exercise that influence the more the West reacts, further increasing the logic of their attraction as a, perhaps the only, viable alternative in an ‘us versus them’ environment.
This then provides fertile ground for recruiting to the battlefields of Syria and Iraq, as it had in Afghanistan. It also helps construct a narrative that posits a fundamentalist iteration of Islam as, eventually, the ‘solution’ for all Muslims.
While this is fantasist nonsense, roundly rejected by the overwhelming majority of Muslims both in Western countries and elsewhere, this simple radical solution retains appeal for a small minority. And the greater the negative response, through security crack-downs and rejectionist political policies and movements, the more rational the appeal of that ‘solution’ seems.
The Islamist terrorists have had the upper hand in the ‘war on terror’ from the outset. That is because the more there are negative responses to their behavior, the more they win susceptible recruits to their cause.
There is no simple answer to dealing with this problem. But understanding its internal processes is a start.