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Lessons from Europe’s amnesia

Belgium’s deeply divided society, its sizeable numbers of alienated Muslims, and its constant search for political compromise have contributed in large measure to its image of a ‘weak state’, and hence an easy target for terrorists

April 01, 2016 01:01 am | Updated 01:01 am IST

M.K. Narayanan. Photo: V. Ganesan

M.K. Narayanan. Photo: V. Ganesan

March 22 turned out to be the day of reckoning for Brussels, and Belgium, with three explosions — two at the Brussels airport at Zaventem and one in the Maelbeek subway metro station, adjoining the headquarters of the European Union (EU) — which left 34 people dead and more than 300 injured. Brussels, the de facto capital of the European Union (EU) and headquarters of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and which prides itself on its European cosmopolitanism and openness, its value system, civil liberties and diversity, is yet to recover from that day’s “mass casualty attacks”. The bombings were carried out in the same coordinated fashion as the Paris terror strikes in November last year.

A vulnerable target

The Islamic State (IS)-sponsored attack in Brussels should have surprised no one, though the Belgian authorities were apparently caught off guard. Belgium’s deeply divided society, sizeable numbers of alienated Muslims, and its constant search for political compromise have contributed in large measure to its image of being a “weak state” and hence an easy target for terrorists. Belgium has a multiplicity of counterterrorist and law enforcement agencies, but each of them is more reluctant than the other to share information. Belgium’s insistence on open borders further aggravates the problem of adequate security.

The EU does not possess an intelligence agency of its own. Nor is there any system in place for sharing intelligence between its member countries. Belgium tends to be lackadaisical about both intelligence collection and intelligence sharing, leaving itself open to attacks like the present one. It is more intent on being seen as protecting the privacy of individuals and metadata than on ensuring citizens’ security. Hence, this was a recipe for disaster, as the March 22 terror attacks proved.

If anything was needed to show up the incompetence of the Belgian authorities it was the fact that it took several months for the police to locate Salah Abdeslam, one of the key “plotters” of the Paris terror attacks, who was living in the heart of Molenbeek, a stone’s throw from the headquarters of the EU. Muslim-majority Molenbeek has the dubious distinction of being the Salafist capital of Europe, if not the entire West, and should have been a principal target of any counterterrorist operation. It was from Molenbeek that the Paris attacks were planned. Further, in the case of the 2004 Madrid train bombings and the attack on the Jewish museum in Brussels in 2014, all roads led to Molenbeek. Yet, given the porosity of Belgium’s laws, the weakness of the authorities and the police as well as their unwillingness to take adequate counterterrorist measures, it was possible for Europe’s most wanted criminal to live there and evade arrest.

Belgium can lay claim to another unsavoury record as well. Statistics suggest that Belgium is Europe’s per capita leading supplier of foreign fighters to the IS. Yet Belgium, even more than most other European nations, has remained blind to the threat posed by the IS — including the pernicious role of returning IS fighters, fresh from the battlefields of Syria and Iraq. No effort seems to have been made to understand the primordial pull exerted on Belgian Muslims following the announcement of the IS’s Caliphate, or the impact on them of the collapsing nation-state system in West Asia, essentially in Syria and Iraq.

Attitudes have changed little despite the fact that during the past year and more the threat of terror has reached the shores of Europe, with the IS carrying out a series of high-profile attacks on the continent. Some of them are the January 2015 attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris (which killed 12), the February 2015 attack on a Copenhagen cultural centre (in which two persons were killed), and the multiple strikes in Paris (killing 130 and injuring more than 350). Attacks on European targets have also become noticeable. In October last year, the IS was responsible for planting a bomb on a Russian commercial flight which disintegrated while in flight over the Sinai killing 224 passengers.

Europe’s disturbing nonchalance

Europe’s collective and cumulative amnesia, notwithstanding the evidence on record, does constitute a threat to democratic societies elsewhere. Results of investigations into the Paris terror attacks substantiate such concerns. The probes reveal that the IS has been steadily building the machinery to mount sustained terrorist attacks across Europe. They mention that the attackers were properly trained, conversant with terror tactics and in the use of improvised explosive devices as also suicide vests, and had the capability of carrying out coordinated bombings. They used encrypted electronic communications and had resorted to false documentation to move freely between West Asia and Europe. They had also made full use of the easy facility of moving between Belgium and France. All this suggests that the arc of the IS’s growth has reached a stage where it has become a real threat to Europe.

Behind IS’s reach

Consequently, peddling wrong theories as reasons for such attacks can prove dangerous. The recent attacks have little to do with the lack of assimilation of migrant Muslim communities into Europe’s established societies; they are seldom acts of revenge against ongoing hostile actions such as the bombings in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan; nor are they a reaction to the arrests of well-known terrorists. Such reasoning only tends to obscure a fundamental truth, viz ., that the IS today demonstrates an ability to carry out attacks far beyond the boundaries of Syria and Iraq.

This has become possible because of a combination of causative factors. Central to it is a blind belief — anchored in puritanical religion — which, together with selfless sacrifice and cooperation among its followers, has made it possible for it to carry out terror killings on a scale unthinkable to the civilised world. The appeal of the IS is a commitment to the “supremacy of the faith”, more so in the context of today’s chaotic social environment. The U.S. and western bombings of IS-occupied areas of Syria and Iraq have provided the necessary fig leaf of martyrdom — deeply cherished by IS recruits and sympathisers as the weapon of the oppressed. All this is helping to “feed the hunger” of restive Muslim youth to join the battle for “redeeming the faith”, who are then brainwashed to regard the violence and brutality on display as an “exalted campaign of purification”. Atrocities are merely the instruments employed to achieve the ultimate goal of securing the Caliphate — an idea redolent with historical and emotive content, conjuring up visions of the Eighth Century Abbasid Caliphate.

Purist militant Islam is particularly appealing in the context of today’s Europe, where religion is a somewhat degraded entity. The IS is equally at war with decadent pro-West Arab regimes, which it believes have deviated from the path of puritanical Islam. Even Saudi Arabia, despite its encouragement of Wahabi Islam, remains in the IS’s cross hairs.

Looking east

Little acknowledged also is the lingering impact of the Afghan jihad during the final years of the 20th Century. After centuries, the Muslim Mujahideen was able to compel a mighty western power (the Soviet Union) to retreat from Afghanistan. This has given a new impetus and confidence to the forces of militant Islam to take on and defeat the West, especially since 21st Century interventions by the West in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria have proved less than successful. Building on the success of al-Qaeda and other terrorist outfits has added further grist to the IS’s ambitions.

Given this, India cannot remain complacent that it will remain unaffected by the IS as it is heir to a unique civilisational heritage. In December 2015, the IS issued a manifesto which claimed India as part of the Islamic Caliphate. It referred to a growing Hindu movement in the country directed against Muslims. The latest manifesto is a sequel to an earlier one, of June 2015, which had declared IS’s ambition to expand its jihad into India. This is reason enough for India to avoid the kind of amnesia that has engulfed Europe.

M.K. Narayanan is a former National Security Adviser and former Governor of West Bengal.

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