Once again, Europe finds itself reacting to another terrorist attack – this time in Brussels where simultaneous suicide bombers, all who appear to have been known to Belgian authorities, were responsible for the murder of at least 30 people, with at least 100 hundred wounded, some critically.
Brussels has a tortured history of inadvertently harbouring terrorism cells, stretching back to the 2007 Madrid bombings. Its suburban neighbourhoods, such as Molenbeek, provided the command and control hinterland for the Paris attacks. Safe houses, logistics planning, weapons, escape routes and other resources were distributed and coordinated from Molenbeek via a web of support networks. The lion’s share of Belgium’s 600-700 foreign fighters have roots in Molenbeek. Disenfranchised, poor and plagued with an organised crime endemic, Molenbeek has become a hotbed of radicalisation.
Isis and other jihadist groups are establishing underground networks and terror cells in areas like this, which can effectively support mass casualty terrorism. Their ability to find physical havens amongst sympathetic communities is a massive game changer in the jihadist terrorism strategy. Salah Abdeslam, for example, who carried out logistics planning for the Paris attacks and who was recently captured in Molenbeek, was said to have moved relatively freely around the suburb without much scrutiny from the local community. Only several weeks ago, another Isis cell comprised of 11 operatives was detected and arrested by the security services. These are not isolated cells and they are not going away.
This new trend of terrorism is set to continue. Terrorist cells have embedded themselves within large populations. It is a similar tactic to the way Isis behaves in Syria and Iraq. This is evident in Brussels, where terror cells can be offered emotional sanctuary. Emotional support is not something you can securitise or shoot your way out of. The announcement of the deployment of another 225 Belgian troops to help patrol streets and guard borders is unlikely to do more besides increase the climate of fear which allows extremism to thrive. Thousands of police, intelligence and military units have already been visibly stationed across Brussels since the Paris attacks in December. In fact, the level of counter-terrorism activity was so intense that the military and police threatened strike action in February because they were being pushed so hard.
Molenbeek is not the only hotbed, but it is a very active one in Brussels. It cannot be allowed to develop and continue harbouring terrorism cells at the rate that it is. Injecting more troops, more intelligence and more hard-line counter-terrorism will not pacify the threat. This is evident. We need to look to the future. We need to look at the emotional break up of local communities, who are isolated from distant international conflicts.
When minsters and officials say that they are ‘doing all they can’ and that a ‘full spectrum’ counter-terrorism response will be put in place, they need to also look to the long term. Denying Isis and al-Qaeda the space to operate in means de-energising and enfranchising its local supporters. Families and local initiatives are one of the best ways to do this. 225 families patrolling their streets and challenging extremism will do more than injecting another 225 troops.
At Quilliam, we have been involved in facilitating FATE – Families Against Terrorism and Extremism, a European wide network of grassroots organisations. It is part of the first line of defence against radicalisation, and hopes to defy the emotional component of the jihadist narrative. It really does start and end in our communities. It is time to look beyond knee-jerk injections of troops and intelligence. Only then can we get to the heart of the problem.
Haras Rafiq is Managing Director for the Quilliam Foundation