By Rami G. Khouri
24 January, 2015
The recent terror attacks in Paris and the killing or arrest of suspected terrorists in Belgium have clarified the dangerous reality of thousands of European radicals fighting with ISIS in Syria-Iraq and returning to carry out attacks in their home countries. Europe may be repeating the same mistakes that former U.S. President George W. Bush made in the initial American-led global war on terror after the 9/11 attacks in the United States.
The main problem in both cases is that countries or societies that see themselves as innocent victims of foreign terrorism have tended to respond with a broadly failed combination of massive military attacks and jingoistic patriotism at home that touts one’s own fine values of liberty, pluralism and freedom of speech, alongside a desk-pounding determination to be strong and to assert those values due to the terrorist threat.
This combination of responses is on show again these days after the Paris attacks and the arrest of suspected militants across Europe. The result is likely to repeat the counterproductive post-9/11 anti-terrorist policies, because this generation of militants was in many ways born as a consequence of the U.S.-led war on terror. This campaign killed thousands of militants and civilians, disrupted terrorist networks, and unwittingly promoted the fastest growth of Islamist militancy and criminal behaviour ever seen in modern history.
Recent studies say perhaps over 5,000 foreign militants from Western and Arab-Asian countries may be on the battlefield in Syria and Iraq alone. So we do face a serious threat, but have we analyzed it accurately and responded appropriately?
Twenty-one member states of the coalition opposing ISIS met in London this week to discuss progress in their fight and to seek ways to reduce the blowback of Europeans who carry out terrorist attacks at home after returning from action with ISIS or Al-Qaeda. The indications from the deliberations were that the prevalent approach to fighting this threat will succeed in the very limited arena of containing the spread of ISIS in Syria and Iraq due to sustained foreign bombings, combined with some ground attacks by local Kurdish and Arab forces. However, it will not make Western and Middle Eastern countries any safer, because the underlying causes bolstering ISIS and Al-Qaeda will not have been defeated, or even in many cases addressed.
The dilemma that Europeans and Americans seem unwilling to confront is twofold: their own policies or actions are responsible to a significant degree for two out of the three elements that cause their citizens to become radicalized, embrace terrorism, join ISIS and Al-Qaeda and return to attack their own societies.
Those two are, first, the socio-economic conditions and policing policies in countries such as France, the United Kingdom and others. These conditions and policies result in the emergence of small numbers of alienated and marginalized young men who see no future for themselves in their land of birth and citizenship, and therefore gravitate to the extreme fringes.
A second cause is the West’s foreign policy actions. These include ongoing warfare in the Arab world and Asia (Iraq, Afghanistan), resulting in the catastrophic collapse of society and the deaths of tens or hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians.
The third, and most important, reason for radicalization is the half-century of miserable and incompetent Arab governance and tyranny that has humiliated hundreds of millions of men and women. Some of them have respond by moving to the extreme fringes and creating groups such as Al-Qaeda and ISIS.
The deadly combination of domestic and foreign policies by Western governments has been identified as causing the radicalization of many studied young men who joined terrorist groups and conducted criminal attacks at home. Any successful anti-terrorism policy must include a serious attempt to address all three Middle Eastern and Western drivers of transnational terrorism, including the reality of French, British and other Western citizens born and radicalized in their home countries, due in large part to their own governments’ policies.
This is a tough pill to swallow, but the phenomenon must be seriously assessed if there is to be any chance of defeating terrorism by wiping out its root causes. This is preferable to emotionally waving freedom flags, singing national anthems, pounding chests and committing to fight forever to defeat a phenomenon that cannot be defeated only militarily.
The New York Times reporter Alan Cowell correctly noted earlier this week that, “As much as Western governments may clamour for enhanced powers to round up suspects or penetrate social media sites in their battle to ward off attacks, it seems that Europe has reached a tipping point where the distant killing fields of Syria and Iraq have fused with – and fuelled – home-grown extremism.”
Unravelling and understanding that fusion of mind-altering domestic and foreign conditions that drive extremism is the critical first step to reducing blowback from home-grown French, British and other European terrorists. Let’s hope Europe does a better job of this than the Americans did.
Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly by THE DAILY STAR.