June 20, 2016

TSG IntelBrief: Disrupting Terror in Europe

• On June 19, Belgian officials charged three men with terrorism after a sweep that saw 40 people detained

• Belgium and other EU countries are scrambling to disrupt plots of known terror suspects

• Though there are concerns that excessive raids will generate more support for extremism, these raids are not indiscriminate in nature and most suspects have long criminal histories 

• While the U.S. struggles with lone wolf threats, the EU must contend with small cells that require disruption over detection.


Modern counterterrorism strategies are always a balance of deterrence and disruption, with the preference being for holistic approaches that minimize legal detentions and prioritize social intervention. Democratic societies are understandably concerned with relying on tactics that risk generating more sympathy for extremism. European democracies that have erred on the side of liberalism are now struggling to combat violent extremism under the framework of traditional crime. 

Western Europe—and France and Belgium in particular—currently faces serious challenges pertaining to violent extremism.  Not since the 1970s has the continent faced such a widespread problem. On June 19, Belgium authorities announced the arrest of three men under various terrorism charges, some of them imminent. The arrests arose from a counterterrorism sweep that involved 40 people—most of whom were well known to security officials.

Recent threats such as the attacks in Brussels and Paris have come from second-generation attackers, men who have lived for years among the societies they rejected. Most of them have criminal records. Law enforcement sweeps have recently targeted suspected terror cells across Belgium, Germany, and France.

Security agencies within the EU are trying to balance assimilation with enforcement. The unprecedented influx of refugee migration presents a serious challenge to both local and EU security agencies. Prior to the attacks in Belgium and Paris, the working model for many EU law enforcement agencies was to put suspected individuals on watch lists. The act of placing someone on a watch list was believed to have a deterrent effect. The attacks, however, demonstrated the fallacy of assuming that a watch list, however comprehensive, would serve as a deterrent. Western counterterrorism agencies are overwhelmed with the scope of threats—both real and imagined. No security agency in a democracy can plausibly monitor all the terrorism threats it faces without devolving into a police state, and thus prioritizing suspects becomes paramount.

Western societies have struggled with counterterrorism strategies that generate more terror recruits than they thwart. Yet there is an increasing understanding that the majority of the active terrorists in countries such as France and Belgium have not been radicalized by counterterrorism practices, but rather that they are criminals long set in their paths. Aggressive tactics that disrupt their cells and activities—such as the persistent raids that keep these groups off balance—do not serve as a radicalizing tool; the targeted individuals are already criminals. 


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