On April 11, 2016, Ms Dorothée Vandamme from the Catholic University at Louvain, Belgium delivered a talk at Strategic Studies Institute Islamabad (SSII) on “Terrorism in Belgium: Causes and Symptoms”. She was speaking to group of journalists and students from various universities.
Ms Vandamme started her presentation by saying that approximately 5000 Europeans so far have left for Syria and Iraq to fight along with the Islamic States (IS). She said that the world is facing a new phenomenon as can be seen from the Brussels and tParis attacks. She said the world was previously facing the phenomenon of ‘lone wolf’ terrorism, which it does not face anymore. She described ‘lone wolf’ terrorists as those individuals who become radicalised by watching you tube videos that carry out attacks in the name of an organisation but without actually being affiliated with the organisation. Ms Vandamme said that there is a high concentration of extremists in small neighbourhoods of France and in Belgium and stressed that their objective was not to kill as many people as possible but to conduct as many operations as possible.
She also said that the main reason why Belgium remained a vulnerable target for militant attacks is that there is presence of organised network of radical Islamist recruiters. She said the information, which emerged after the Brussels attack and the consequent arrest of five terrorists revealed that Belgium was not the original target of this attack. She said it was supposed to be carried out again in Paris but given the arrest of Salah Abdeslam from Belgium four days prior to the attack, they carried out a strike in Brussels instead. Ms. Vandamme also said that Belgium also remains an interesting target for the militants because it is the heart of European Union (EU) and is also a political and cultural hub.
Whilst detailing the recruitment patterns of ISIS, MS Vandamme said the attackers are mostly between the ages of 20 to 24 and have superficial knowledge of religion and are primarily driven by personal estrangement from society. Ms Dorothee said that the recruiters target those individuals who have a prior criminal background and prison experience. She said the training of fighters is mostly being carried out in Syria, Libya and North Africa and then they are being sent back to Europe.
She listed identity crisis in the European societies as the underlying issue causing radicalisation. She said that Muslim youth in Europe struggle with identity and safe image in trying to reconcile their religious background with a secular world.
She said the growing cultural divide between religion and secular world intertwines with socioeconomic inequalities, noting that the growing social and economic deprivation has made some neighbourhoods in Belgium and France as migrant ghettos due to years of neglect by the state and society.
Dorothée Vandamme also tried to establish a link between the influx of migrants and acts of terrorism. She said that the terrorist attacks conducted after the Paris attacks on January 7, 2015, in which Paris office of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo was targeted, have different connotations. Charlie Hebdo movement was to defend freedom of speech and religion. Therefore, attacks on it were reactionary, symbolic and made some sense. However, another wave of attacks in Paris on November 13, 2015, was random in nature aimed only to kill and had no apparent reasons. After this attack, links between migrants and terrorism were established. This link intensified after both the mass sexual assault in Cologne, Germany, on New Year’s Eve by migrants and Brussels attacks on March 22, 2016. One of the main reasons for such links is the increasing popularity of extreme right parties in Europe who use conservative and xenophobic rhetoric to challenge Muslim migrants in Western European countries. Third generation migrants as a result belong to parallel societies, trying to reconcile their European identities with the countries of their forefathers.
While further elaborating on failures to diminish the link between migrants and terrorism, she mentioned that EU leaders are not in control of what is going on in Europe. The lack of cooperation amongst European intelligence agencies remains a huge problem. Europe as a Schengen Area has freedom of movement across 27 countries but intelligence is not shared by the individual national agencies with other European states owing to economic rivalry amongst European states. Moreover, national pride of the individual states in EU also leaves the solidarity fragile due to which it becomes difficult to control the menace of terrorism across Europe.
Notwithstanding these difficulties European states have chalked out some instruments to fight terrorism. Vandamme explained that EU’s strategy for combating terrorism and radicalisation was based on four pillars i.e Prevent, Protect, Pursue and Respond. Its internal security strategy guidelines reject terrorist ideology, respect fundamental rights, and promote integration and cultural dialogue. Vandamme further explained Belgium’s counterterrorism policy. She stated that Belgium’s policy is based on a policy, which favours integration of migrants. However, the country is facing multiple problems including the inability of the Belgian system to keep dangerous men locked up because of overcrowded jails. Further, due to huge influx of refugees, Belgian intelligence agencies have lots of work to do, so it cannot catch up with ground situation. Belgian agencies also lack resources to fulfill the requirements to have a check on everyone. Thus to meet the challenges, Belgian counterterrorism policy is being shaped around empathy and is adopting the measures to address the root causes of terrorism.
In conclusion, Ms. Vandamme provided some policy recommendations which may help to deal with the root causes of modern terrorism. She mentioned that since IS is a resourceful and resilient group, therefore, all the European states have to work together to deal with it. States have to work together to enable Islam and Western values to exist together. She also clarified that radicalisation can only be tackled if societies adopt an integrative approach by maintaining link between society and vulnerable individuals. European states also need to adopt joint policies and working groups to deal with the refugee and migrant crisis.
Q: I think religion is not the main cause of terrorist attacks in France and Belgium, rather the real causes were absence of legitimacy and recognition of different communities of people residing in both the countries.
Ans. Yes, I agree that religion was not the driving cause of attacks. Religion is used as a way to stitch individuals in a community together. However the basic problem is that of social and cultural issues, which then further create identity crisis. Lack of cooperation, understanding and integration amongst individuals of a society gave way to the terrorist attacks.
Q: This is not the first wave of terrorism in Europe. There were terror attacks in 60’s and 90’s as well. At that time European nations had a very coherent policy for dealing with the issue, but this time the response remains incoherent and seems to be reactionary. How do you see the disconnect between the two waves in terms of a coherent policy?
Ans. There are two problems, first problem is that from 60s to 90s there were less countries in the EU and it remained easy to devise a coherent policy among European nations. However, currently there are 27 countries so the large number of states has made the process of having common and coherent policy difficult to achieve.
The second problem is that the root causes of earlier terrorist attacks were logical and easy to understand. However, the current wave of terrorism is complicated and difficult to understand which leads to question the very structure of social environment in European countries. It leads us to wonder what is wrong in our society which paved way to such deadly terrorist attacks.
Q: How is Belgium handling the structural problems of society which enables people to join terrorists groups?
A: The social and political authorities identified towns in Belgium where people are facing problems of social integration. They put in place programs to identify individuals who could be radicalized or had some potential inclination towards radicalisation. Educational and professional people tried to make sure the linkage of vulnerable individuals to the society. Police was deployed in all the problematic districts. As Belgium is federation of two provinces, therefore local authorities have a lot of power. A mayor can easily put in place suitable programmes to deal with the emerging problems.
Q: While keeping in view the inception of IS which had some geopolitical aims, do you think that attacks on France and Belgium had some geopolitical motives and therefore attacks on them was meant to make a symbolic attack on NATO?
No. If IS were to attack NATO then it would not attack France. The actual target was France but the attack was carried out in Belgium in a hurry. France was attacked because of its ongoing social crises between migrant community and indigenous population.