Note: I originally wrote an earlier draft of this piece in the immediate aftermath of the Paris attacks and the Brussels lockdown and decided not to publish it at the time, feeling I was not qualified enough to write about such a complex topic as radicalisation to risk dipping my toe into the shark-infested debate on this issue. I’m still not qualified enough, but here are some thoughts anyway:
What drives young men and women to travel far from their families to a war zone and join a death cult that has declared the annihilation of the very societies they have grown up in to be its ultimate purpose? What motivates them to take to the streets on a Friday evening and indiscriminately slaughter their own generation enjoying a night out listening to music, just as they themselves have often done? We may never truly understand the pull of Islamist terrorism and its war without end, but until we at least try to address some of its multifaceted push factors our streets will never be safe.
A city I know well is Brussels, still far from back to normal after November’s terror alert. After the initial state of shock, Belgian and European society is still being rocked by a growing realisation of the extent of home-grown Islamist terrorism and the scale of the task of protecting us all from future attacks.
The European Parliament gets a lot of things wrong, but at the end of last year it adopted a useful report by former French Justice Minister Rachida Dati on the prevention of radicalisation and recruitment of Europeans by terrorist organisations. At its heart is one message – only a multi-layered approach will defeat home-grown terrorism. We need greater international cooperation and information sharing to identify and track potentially dangerous individuals online and in the real world and to disrupt terrorist financing networks. This needs to be accompanied by a comprehensive community outreach strategy to promote inclusion and a sense of belonging amongst disengaged youngsters.
There are a lot of stories of talented but disconnected young people spurning opportunities in life, but one told to me by a cricket coach sticks in my mind. On visiting a gang in the West Midlands conurbation he was stunned and delighted by the quality of their cricket – several of them were of a higher calibre than young players he knew already signed up as professional cricketers. Yet, when he asked them to come to trials they adamantly refused, and no amount of persuasion that they had a genuine chance of becoming professional cricketers could make them change their minds. Their distrust and isolation from mainstream society cost them the opportunity of a lifetime. Unless we do more as a society to overcome that sense of rejection amongst many young Europeans we too will continue to pay the price in lives lost and the erosion of our safety and liberty. That hard work should start in school at an early age, with a focus on empowering children and engaging them in the wider community. It should also be targeted in prisons too, where young people who have been led astray can be persuaded from doing further harm to wider society.
In the meantime we cannot neglect the more immediate solution of enhancing cooperation and information sharing between law enforcement agencies and greater intergovernmental intelligence cooperation. Particularly through greater use of the European Cybercrime Centre a more significant and systematic sharing of information can enhance our understanding of developing terrorist networks. The EU-US Passenger Name Records Agreement was finally adopted by the European Parliament earlier this year, establishing a secure system of sharing passenger information under the highest data protection standards is also vital to close gaps in our ability to detect serious crime and transatlantic terrorism. None of this should undermine national sovereignty on matters of intelligence gathering and security. What we definitely do not need is a new EU intelligence agency, as some have called for, it would lack the proper accountability, democratic legitimacy and consent that modern national intelligence agencies must operate in accordance with.
Finally, we can never be safe unless we tackle terrorism in its havens abroad. The rise of IS has run counter to established logic on how successful terrorist insurgencies should operate. They are supposed to forever stay in the shadows and avoid directly seizing control of territory as a traditional army would. IS in its seizure of large swathes of land in Syria and Iraq and attempt to establish itself as a caliphate has provided a dark beacon for all those drawn to its vile ideology of sadism and hatred of difference. Estimates vary, but clearly thousands of young Europeans have travelled to Syria and joined IS, committing untold crimes on the innocent people of that region whilst there. Many have also travelled back to Europe, posing grave danger to their fellow citizens.
We need to utterly destroy IS and its system of terror and restore stability and some measure of peace to Syria and northern Iraq before we can ever begin to feel safe in Europe and tackle our own internal dangers. A comprehensive multi-faceted fight on many fronts, at home and abroad, is the only way forward for us all.