For anyone in Estonia working with security and defence issues it is difficult not to be affected by what happened on 22 March in Brussels. As a nerve centre of our two pivotal alliances – the EU and NATO – Brussels is constantly on our travel itinerary. Over the last week alone, at least four members of our small think-tank visited the city with different pursuits. This is where many brains from various corners of our alliances meet to talk, think and strategize. Annual Brussels Forum, where the threats of ISIS, aggressive Russia and alike have been discussed at length, took place last weekend. There are dozens and dozens of Estonian, Latvian, Lithuanian security and defence experts working in Brussels. We all walk its streets, sometimes use the underground station which was attacked and go through the departures terminal of the airport on a regular basis .It is sheer luck that none of us got caught up in those terrible events, but it unnerves to think one may not get so much luck some other time.
The attacks are not a surprise to anyone following how the ISIS threat has evolved and has come to threaten the heartland of Europe. It did not come as a surprise to the government of Belgium, which had been expecting this ever since the attacks in Paris which almost immediately led the investigators to Brussels. Paradoxically, while being the hub of NATO and the EU, Brussels and its borough of Molenbeenk have been a European capital of jihadi networks, too. Thus the city became the focal point of a large scale manhunt for the suspected organisers and perpetrators of Paris attacks and their supporting networks, which occasionally saw the city in a lockdown for days and which peaked when one key individual was apprehended last week. Indeed, the concern of the counter-terrorism authorities had been that high profile arrest would trigger other cells of the network into action. The surprise factor was not there, but this does not console the relatives of victims, and all fear and disruption caused by the coordinated attacks will be reverberating for weeks to come.
Several issues spring to mind when reflecting on the nature of the threat in general and its manifestation in Brussels specifically. First is that strength, cohesion, resources and capabilities of government and its security authorities matter a great deal. The reason why Brussels (and Belgium) became such a hub for terrorist networks is that its counter-terrorism authorities have been hollowed out, underfunded and undermanned for years, which was hardly commensurate with the scale of the threat but amply illustrated the general weakness of the central government of Belgium and fragmentation of its judicial and law enforcement institutions. Indeed, after the Paris attacks, it was reported by the POLITICO that the French and British authorities launched the intervention of their intelligence services into Belgium which were quite unprecedented in terms of infringement upon the sovereignty of a fellow EU member state. Attacks of 22 March were a brutal wake-up call to the Belgian society at large that the country which hosts so many international organisations but also serves as a base for the jihadi madmen cannot afford to be lenient or weak in security governance.
Second, cohesion of a society and the strength of its core values should not be just empty words. Segments of the Belgian Muslim community are poorly integrated despite that many of them are already born and have been raised in the country. Unemployment and crime are endemic in those segments, and their alienation from the rest of the society is opening up possibilities for radicalization. No matter how senseless it sounds to a normal person, but self-realisation through terrorist violence becomes their pathway to escaping their socio-economic and cultural trappings. A “shadow society” which was allowed to take root and grow on the Belgian soil is now spawning monsters ready to kill upon the encouragement of some rabid imams, Syrian warlords or veterans of jihadi campaigns in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere. Obviously, hands-off approach to societal integration by the Belgian state and its constituent parts and abandonment of sections of society to lawlessness or, rather, to the alternative “laws” which are in clash with our liberal democratic values is a wrong policy. Belgium (and not only) must become much more forward leaning, pervasive and assertive in eradicating such “shadow societies” lurking beneath the surface in their midst. This means mobilizing and surging not only law enforcement, intelligence, counter-terrorism and judicial authorities or technological capacities, but also educational, cultural, media, social and other “soft” but equally crucial stakeholders of security. And bracing for a long haul to undo things that went wrong on the integration and social cohesion front.
Third, it is worth reminding ourselves that our own over-reactions or misguided responses may do as much damage as the terrorist acts. Indeed, terrorist violence is a means to provoke such over-reactions. Terrorism is a form of insurgency, and this entails that images – of the insurgents (terrorists) and counter-insurgents (state authorities) – created by their actions constitute a part of communication shaping perceptions of various audiences. A vast majority of the intended targets of this communication usually are passive observers who do not actively take sides, which is especially true of the Muslim communities whose support to and co-operation with the authorities is vital in isolating and defeating ISIS-linked terrorist networks. Both the insurgents and counter-insurgents want to sway those observers. Anything which the Belgian and European authorities do will affect the perceptions of a sizeable Muslim minority in various Western countries and beyond. If those actions polarize and alienate, instill fear and hatred or undermine the fundamental principles of our states, this will eventually hand victory down to ISIS and expand its recruitment pool. Lashing out against refugees who are fleeing violence and terror in their homelands and against Muslim minorities in the West or accepting torture as an interrogation method, which are enthusiastically called for by Donald Trump-like buffoons, are exactly what ISIS ideologists wish us to do.
Fourth, resilience of our states and societies is essential. The speed with which we recover and resume normal lives – both in psychological and physical (critical infrastructure) terms – while adjusting our security protocols, behaviours and infrastructures is significant in preserving functioning societies. It is important to rally behind leaders, to re-assert our values, to mourn and express sympathy, to render support to the affected ones, to project strength and resolve, to reinforce the sense of togetherness in the face of adversity. These are not useless and meaningless rituals. They help to heal, preserve cohesion and build confidence that acts of terror-instilling violence will not throw us into a state of permanent dysfunction. Such confidence is very important, because terrorism in Europe seems to become our new normal. There will not be total security as long as this is the case. “Lone wolves”, clandestine cells and networks, determined attackers will always find ways to penetrate our security bubble. We have to learn from the successes and mistakes of the countries such as Israel which for years and decades have been coping with terrorism in how to live and flourish despite it. Resilience is not just a new buzzword or metaphor. It is an actionable concept of utmost relevance these days.
Last but not least, we must not lose perspective. As Maajid Nawaz of the Quilliam Foundation noted on CNN, Brussels is but one of the string of attacks stretching from Pakistan to Ivory Coast to Turkey which took place just in the course of one month. Terrorism, especially inspired by ISIS, is a borderless phenomenon. Erecting new borders or restoring old ones will not resolve the problem, as ways will be always found to bypass them (while hugely encumbering everyday lives of citizens). Stepping up international police, judicial, intelligence, customs, military, financial surveillance, strategic communication and other forms of cooperation, especially within our trusted alliances – NATO and the EU, should be the right response. Becoming isolationist and introverted, nationalizing common policies within those alliances and acting in ways which undermine trust of partners is the sure-footed road to losing our best tools currently at hand to containing and eventually neutralising ISIS. The West and their partners around the globe have succeeded in consigning Al Qaeda to irrelevance. There are no reasons why we cannot succeed with their more social media and technology savvy and resourceful heirs who are just as vulnerable to persistent and comprehensive international pressure. Eroding the EU or NATO at the time when we need them most would be a grave mistake. Particularly the EU must be bolstered in security and defence realm, because for the time being it resembles an oversized version of rather dysfunctional Belgium.
Not losing perspective also means keeping an eye on other balls in the complex court of dynamic threats, including when it comes to Russia. While our team, stranded in Belgium on the morning of attacks, was busy building situational awareness and re-arranging travel plans, someone pondered whether this was still a good time to keep attention to the problems of NATO’s deterrence and defence posture on the Eastern flank. A response by one former high ranking NATO general was prompt and unequivocal: “Actually, it is the best time to keep raising this. Because ISIS and their affiliates, no matter how gruesome their acts are, do not constitute an existential threat to any member state. They cause misery and disruption, they eventually have to be defeated, but they are a nuisance compared to the threat posed by Russia.” Supporting Belgium in the hour of their need with all what we can, preferably through the EU and NATO mechanisms, is an imperative, but let’s also stay focused on what truly is an existential threat to us and to the trans-atlantic alliance at the moment (and I do not mean Donald Trump. At least, not yet).
Mons, 23 March 2016