By Erika Brady
Columnist, PhD Student at the Handa Center of Terrorism and Political Violence
Yet again, the ugly face of terrorism has struck at one of Europe’s capitals, and yet again, we are looking for someone to blame. Following the attacks in Paris on 13 November 2015, fingers were pointed at refugees as being, if not the cause of the problem, certainly a significant factor in the threat of terrorism in Europe. Refugees flooding into European countries, people said, brought terrorists with them and undermined the ability for states to appropriately apply security measures.
Now, our attention is turning towards the failings of the intelligence community, and severe criticism has been directed at Belgian security forces. Rather than focusing on pointing the finger and assigning blame, one must wonder whether our energies should be focused on other more pressing matters. We need to stop looking for someone or something to blame and instead work collectively to prevent and reduce the impact of terrorist attacks going forward.
One of the few things that experts can agree on with regard to ISIS, is that it effectively learns from past mistakes. Each time ISIS fails, and in all honesty it fails more often than not, it assesses and adapts. We must bear in mind that ISIS’ successes are far more public than its failures, and so it is important to note that most terrorist plots are foiled before becoming a reality. But as we are told from childhood, you often learn more from your mistakes than you do from your successes.
One of the few things that experts can agree on with regard to ISIS, is that it effectively learns from past mistakes.
This, ISIS does well, and its ability to learn from past mistakes is connected to another one of its strengths – its adaptability. From its earliest beginnings as a group led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, through its association of convenience with Al’Qaeda (to form Al’Qaeda in Iraq), and its subsequent split with Al’Qaeda, ISIS’ evolution has been one of opportunistic gain and adaptability. It saw the unrest in Syria in 2011 and, under the leadership of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, ISIS turned it into an opportunity, insinuating itself into the factional challenges there.
When taking all of this into consideration, it should be clear to see that the useless task of assigning blame feeds into ISIS’ hands. The organisation thrives on discord, and what better way to undermine European states than to have their own populations loose faith in their abilities. In an interview with the apparent mastermind of several of the recent attacks in Europe, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, in ISIS’ glossy magazine “Dabiq”, Abaaoud gloated over the fact that he had not been captured, and was able to work effectively under the nose of the authorities. Following the Paris attacks in November 2015, Abaaoud became the world’s most wanted man, and it was only through the concerted efforts of the intelligence community that he was, finally, discovered and killed.
The institutions of the European states need to learn from their mistakes also, and need to better adapt to terrorist tactics. According to General Michael Hayden, former Director of the CIA, many European countries share intelligence with the US, but not their European neighbours. This format for the exchange of intelligence is unacceptable, and provides terrorists with far more opportunities to exploit state weaknesses. Confronting and fighting terrorism is sufficiently challenging without further opening ourselves to fragmentation.
When taking all of this into consideration, it should be clear to see that the useless task of assigning blame feeds into ISIS’ hands.
When failures do occur, as they undoubtedly did in Brussels on 22 March 2016 and in the days leading up to the deadly attacks, we do need to analyse what went wrong and implement better ways to deal with terrorist threats. But we need to come up with new strategies for future engagement and the elimination of the terrorist threat, not turn in circles lamenting the failures of the past.
This is why revelations like the one made by the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan that Turkey had warned Belgium of the terrorist links of one of the men in the Belgian attacks supremely unhelpful. Turkey itself has been subjected to heinous acts of terrorism over the past number of months, and publicly pointing out Belgium’s errors does not move the struggle forward, but draws debate towards that which cannot be resolved. Actions had already been taken and cannot now be changed. Belgium needs to be supported, not condemned, as the danger to Europe from ISIS is far from over. Working with a country that has experienced terrorism and learning from what worked or did not work will add greatly to the decision-making process on how to deal with the threat in the future.
Publicly pointing out Belgium’s errors does not move the struggle forward, but draws debate towards that which cannot be resolved
Something that must also be acknowledged is that the public never get the whole picture. We are provided with a very distorted picture of the truth by media agencies, each with their own agenda. While Turkey said that it had provided information to Belgium about one of the terrorists involved in the Belgian attacks, we have not been made privy to the method or type of information that was exchanged, or the level of the threat with which that information was provided. If the Belgian authorities had done a better job at detaining this one terrorist, would this have made a difference or would the attacks have gone ahead regardless? We have no way of knowing, but the manner in which the media presents these reports implies that Belgium did not take the Turkish intelligence warning seriously, and the attacks happened because of that.
If only causality could be so easily confirmed.
When watching the news and reading these media reports, we need to keep our minds open and realise that we are getting only a small part of the entire picture. The complexity of the problems espoused by terrorism are vast, and the public, for reasons both good and bad, both understandable and incomprehensible, are kept in the dark as to much of it.
Without a doubt, Europe has been the focus of many terrorist attacks over the past 15 months in particular. Most of them have been wholly unsuccessful, although the few that have succeeded have done so on a level beyond comprehension. And Europe has not been the only place that Europeans have been targeted – indeed, the attacks at the beach at Sousse and the museum in Tunis, both in Tunisia, clearly show a pattern of targeting European people wherever they are. While the definition of terrorism continues to be a contentious issue, defying resolution, one of the key components of terrorism that most can agree on is the terrorist’s drive to attack citizens, particularly non-combatants, whether at home or abroad, to force the government to react. This is certainly what ISIS is doing, and it is far more successful than we want to believe.
Knowing that Europeans who visit other countries on vacation are vulnerable to terrorist attacks should also make us realise that these countries, for example Tunisia, Egypt, Lebanon and Turkey, are also under threat of attack, and are in fact experiencing attacks on a far more regular basis, often with higher fatalities and causalties. Terrorist attacks outside Europe like the ones in the Cote d’Ivoir (13 March 2016 – 22 dead), Pakistan (27 March 2016 – at least 69 dead) and Nigeria (30 January 2016 – 86 dead) barely make the news, and are only a few examples of terrorist attacks taking place on a daily basis throughout the world.
When watching the news and reading these media reports, we need to keep our minds open and realise that we are getting only a small part of the entire picture.
We must be careful, lest we lose our humanity. Shutting ourselves behind ten-foot walls will not protect us, nor will it prevent the inevitable move towards modernity and globalisation and the challenges inherent therein. Keeping all Syrian refugees out of our countries, and forcing them to return to homelessness, starvation and war will only help ISIS’ cause, thus impacting our own safety. Let us not expend energy on looking for who is to blame, but instead let us focus on how we can learn from the past, to better inform future decisions. Only through working together will we be effective in combating terrorism and maintaining the ideals of our societies – liberty, fraternity and equality.
Featured image by H. Murdock/Voice of America