March 30, 2016

TSG IntelBrief: Resilience and the Terror Threat in Europe

• On March 27, a group of approximately 300 far-right protesters clashed with riot police near a memorial for the victims of the Brussels terror attacks

• The incident underscored the fear and tension brewing throughout the EU in the wake of the second successful Islamic State-directed mass-casualty attack in Europe in less than six months

• In a heightened threat environment, it is common for security concerns to lead to increasingly hawkish and insular policies

• It is critical that EU policymakers strike a careful balance between strong and effective counterterrorism measures and policies likely to produce the unintended consequence of expanding sympathy for violent extremist causes in Europe.


Among the most fundamental functions of government is to provide security for the citizens under its rule. The devastating March 22 attacks in Brussels—which served as an excruciating reminder of the unprecedented terror threat facing the EU—understandably evoked strong emotional reactions. As Europeans struggle to grapple with the reality of a second mass-casualty terrorist attack in Europe within six months, they are demanding answers from their leaders about the scope of the threat and how it will be addressed. Tensions came to a head on March 27, when a group of protesters aligned with far-right nationalist parties in Belgium interrupted a gathering of peaceful mourners at a makeshift memorial at Place de la Bourse for the victims of the attacks in Brussels. The protesters reportedly chanted anti-immigrant slogans while clashing with riot police and throwing water bottles at mourners.

In the wake of a successful attack, it is natural for populations overcome by fear and grief to gravitate towards acceptance of more hawkish security measures and policies. More often than not, however, such reactionary policies—rather than thoughtfully crafted responses that may take longer to formulate—only serve to restore the perception—rather than the reality—of security. The balance between strong, yet effective, security policies and severe, counterproductive policies is extremely delicate. Counterterrorism policies and practices motivated by fear rather than by rationality and resilience may paradoxically exacerbate the drivers of radicalization and recruitment in Europe, rather than suppress them. The answer to the violent extremist threat facing Europe will not be found through the adoption of extreme nationalist rhetoric preached by various far-right parties throughout the EU.

As more than 5,000 citizens from Western Europe have traveled to fight with the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, it is increasingly difficult to dispute the notion that societal factors endemic to Europe have played a significant role in their radicalization. Nowhere is this more apparent than in France and Belgium—which both now hold the designation as home to one of the deadliest Islamic State-directed attacks outside of the Middle East. France, a country of approximately 65 million people, has seen at least 1,700 of its nationals travel to join the ranks of the Islamic State—the most of any Western country. Belgium has a total population of approximately 11 million, of which at least 470 people have traveled to join the terrorist group in Iraq and Syria—the highest per capita outflow of foreign fighters amongst any Western European country.

France and Belgium share a number of societal commonalities that have contributed to the comparatively high rate of foreign fighters from each country. Each country is home to large Muslim immigrant communities, yet both have a notoriously poor record of removing barriers to integration into broader society. As Muslim immigrants from North Africa and the Middle East are pushed further to the margins of society, disillusioned second and third generation immigrant youth in France and Belgium have served as prime targets for charismatic recruiters. In neighborhoods such as Molenbeek in Brussels and St. Denis near Paris, recruiters have capitalized on the vulnerabilities generated by disenchanted Muslim youth, many of whom have criminal records and already harbor grievances toward a broader European culture that has refused to embrace them.

It is critical that EU policymakers act quickly and collaboratively to make adjustments in both counterterrorism policies and laws to ensure the threat posed by the Islamic State in Europe is mitigated. But any reactions to the recent attacks that reinforce exclusionary policies and sentiment throughout Europe—rather than promote integration and seek to address the underlying factors that have given rise to violent extremism in Europe in the first place—run the very real risk of undermining European security and exacerbating the threat of terrorism. Succumbing to xenophobic and reactionary rhetoric will only serve as a self-fulfilling prophecy, and plays right into the hands of Islamic State propaganda. While immediate steps must be taken to target and disrupt Islamic State networks in Europe, allowing the attacks to spur disproportionate responses and crackdowns on Muslim immigrant communities in Europe will only perpetuate the 'West vs. Muslim' narrative the group seeks to promulgate through its attacks.


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