5 Questions on European Terrorism with Brigitte L. Nacos

March 29, 2016
Brigitte L. Nacos

Brigitte L. Nacos, an adjunct professor of political science in the Department of Political Science, is an expert on terrorism and counterterrorism. She has lectured at the NATO Centre of Excellence Defence Against Terrorism in Ankara, Turkey, and is a member of a three- person academic advisory board of the European Union-funded academic research network on violent online political extremism. Her book Terrorism and Counterterrorism has just been published in a fifth edition, and her book Mass-Mediated Terrorism is now in its third edition.

Q. Belgium is a country with a population of 11 million, smaller than the New York Metropolitan area. Why is it a hotbed of radical Islam?

A. There is a major reason why more Belgian Muslims per capita went to fight in Syria and Iraq than any other Western country, with some of them returning to their homeland. And that is the inability and/or unwillingness of Belgian intelligence and law enforcement communities to gather intelligence about extremist Muslim clergymen, who were often brought in and financed decades ago by Saudi Arabian Wahhabists and their recruits. The latter are typically second generation or even third generation Muslim immigrants who were never integrated into Belgian society.

Q. Does Belgium have the military strength or intelligence assets to deal with threats?

A. For years, there may have been a notion that these militants did not and would not strike in Belgium—so they were left alone, unbothered by the authorities until recently, after the attacks in Paris in November 2015. Given the lack of intelligence and police knowledge about communities like Molenbeek, these areas in Brussels and elsewhere provide cover for jihadists, such as Salah Abdeslam, one of the Paris attacker team, who was arrested last week after four months of living there. Key to the failure of the Belgian authorities is the lack of a strong, centralized intelligence and police system that transcends the divisions between French and Flemish Belgian regions and the independence of local police jurisdictions. Add to that the lack of intelligence sharing and institutional cooperation between European intelligence and police.

Related: Professor Stuart Gottlieb on Brussels, Columbia News

Q. What impact will this attack, following on the heels of the Paris attack, have on other European countries? Is all of Europe at risk?

A. Some European countries, especially those in one way or the other involved in fighting ISIS either militarily or otherwise (interrupting the flow of money, for example), are more vulnerable than others. ISIS has in particular threatened Germany, France, and Switzerland. One needs to distinguish between attacks planned by ISIS operators directly, such as those in Paris in November and the one in Brussels this week, and those carried out by lone wolves without direct ties to ISIS, such as the one in San Bernardino last year. As for impact in Europe, responses in Europe—I think that the voices of nationalists, the far right, will find even more resonance in the public, say France, Holland, Germany, Austria, Belgium, and Scandinavian countries. There will be more criticism of German Chancellor Merkel’s acceptance of more than a million mostly Muslim refugees.

Q. Does the apparent ease with which ISIS has infiltrated Europe suggest it can do the same in the United States?

A. No, the United States is different. First, in terms of proximity, Europe is far closer to the so-called Islamic State. More important, unlike their European counterparts, the vast majority of American Muslims are very well integrated in U.S. society. Muslim Americans are better educated, have higher incomes and are more entrepreneurial than Americans as a whole. While thousands of European Muslims made their way to ISIS, only an estimated 200 or so Muslim Americans have done so.

Related: Professor Austin Long on Brussels, Columbia News

Q. What do we have to look out for next?

A. There will be more terrorism of this kind, whether directly plotted by ISIS and Al Qaeda and like-minded groups—or autonomous cells or lone wolves inspired by jihadi propaganda, radicalization, and recruitment via social media. The biggest mistake here in the U.S. would be to follow Senator Ted Cruz’s call for police to “patrol and secure” Muslim neighborhoods here in America. To begin with, most Muslim Americans live in integrated communities. Singling out Muslim neighborhoods for constant surveillance and policing would be detrimental to fostering good relationships between them and local police. It should be noted that Muslim American families and communities have been instrumental in alerting the authorities to radicalization and recruitment in their midst. Similarly, Donald Trump’s demands for keeping Muslims out of our country are contrary to American values and could alienate American Muslims. As for dealing with the terrorist threat from ISIS and Al Qaeda, I believe that the U.S. and its allies need a two-pronged approach in addition to current policies. First, there must be intensified action against jihadists in Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen and elsewhere. Second, and more importantly, we must help initiate far better strategies and tactics by Muslim allies and the West to counter the online propaganda that spread around the world first via Bin Laden and then ISIS.