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Why the Brussels attack was all but inevitable

By Alon Ben-Meir - posted Thursday, 31 March 2016


The horrific attacks in Brussels by terrorists affiliated with ISIS that claimed the lives of 35 people and injured more than 200 was all but inevitable. These attacks may well increase in frequency and intensity in many European cities where citizens travel freely and violent extremists among them can plot attacks without early detection. Although a substantial increase in internal security personnel, intelligence gathering and sharing between the European community, and better preparedness are critically important, they will not in and of themselves drastically stem such terrorist attacks. The European Union must realize that while the fight against ISIS-inspired terrorists must be relentless, they must simultaneously address the root causes that motivate young Muslims, mostly nationals of their respective European countries, to commit such atrocities.

There are three fronts on which violent extremism must concurrently be fought: defeating ISIS, improving the socioeconomic and political conditions in the Arab states, and integrating young Muslims into their European social milieu. The focus of this article is on the lack of integration, which remains glaringly evident; the EU has failed to find a viable solution to this problem without which no security measure, however sophisticated and extensive, will suffice. A brief review of the first two fronts is necessary as all three are entwined and directly impact one another:

The prerequisite of defeating ISIS

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Although ISIS has suffered serious setbacks in recent months, the group remains a powerful entity that will continue to expand its outreach outside Iraq and Syria. Dozens of cells have already been established in many European countries where hundreds of operatives live. Many of these young Muslims have volunteered to join the ranks of ISIS and return to their European countries fully trained and religiously charged to conduct acts of terror in the name of God, often in a time and place of their own choice. Voltaire put it succinctly when he said: "What can you say to a man who tells you that he prefers obeying God rather than men, and that as a result he's certain he'll go to heaven if he cuts your throat?"

Although the destruction of ISIS will not automatically end its attacks, they will certainly be substantially reduced in number and frequency as many of these recruits become increasingly demoralized, as romanticism about the establishment of a caliphate will evaporate. Moreover, the destruction of ISIS will also send a clear message to other violent extremist groups that their fate will be no different than that of ISIS.

Though there is an aversion to the introduction of ground troops, despite its recent retreat and loss of territory, ISIS will not be defeated from the air alone. While Iraqi and Syrian troops have made major progress in the fight against ISIS, additional ground troops including Arab and Turkish contingents sufficient in number and capabilities are needed to stop ISIS in its tracks. Short of that, ISIS will have more time to recruit, train, and implant an increasing number of cells in Europe and the Middle East that will continue to terrorize the EU, disrupt the normalcy of life, paralyze cities such as Paris and Brussels, and cause havoc and uncertainty for years, if not decades, to come.

Finally, now that the campaign to reclaim Mosul has started, there is no better time to introduce such ground forces to prevent a protracted campaign that could inflict tens of thousands of civilian casualties, as most ISIS fighters are imbedded among civilians. As such, ISIS may well fight to the last man because the loss of Mosul would spell the near-end of ISIS in Iraq.

The need for socio-economic and political reforms in the Arab states

The Arab states must realize that the root causes of radicalization are rooted in their internal socioeconomic inequality and political disorder, and only by undertaking systematic and consistent measures to cure this domestic malaise will violent radicalization abate. The decades-long suppression, suffering, and servitude that the Arab masses, especially the young, have endured under largely corrupt and uncaring leaders with an insatiable hunger for power in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Egypt, Yemen, and others has reached a new tipping point. As long as grievances, hopelessness, and desolation prevail, they will continue to provide fertile ground for radical Islamists to step in and capitalize on public despair.

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Therefore, Arab states must either embark now on social, economic, and political reforms that offer a new horizon and hope for a better and brighter future, or be swept away by escalating violent extremism that will destroy the political foundation on which these regimes rest-Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Yemen provide glaring examples. In order to do this, the Arab states must first begin to reduce the growing gap between rich and poor. Nothing is more devastating than witnessing how the wealthy in most Arab states ride on the backs of the poor, and how governments do next to nothing to lift the majority of the people from abject poverty and despair.

Contrary to Western advocacy, stemming radicalization does not rest as much on democratic reform but on a commitment to human rights. The Arab youth are more concerned with job opportunities and living with dignity, than being given the right to vote while still living in despondency and hopelessness. The Arab states face an unprecedented challenge posed by violent extremism. In December 2015, Saudi Arabia announced the formation of the Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism composed of 34 nations (mostly Muslim states). However effective these forces may be, it will make no more than a minor dent in the fight against extremism.

In addition to military and security measures, the Arab states must pay far greater attention to the socio-economic malaise that has infected their society, which are the root causes behind radicalism. They must provide what their youth need the most-hope, job opportunities, social justice, and a life of dignity. Western powers must encourage and support reforms in these areas because the failure of the Arab states to change direction will only continue to destabilize these countries and will directly affect the Western battle against violent extremism.

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About the Author

Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is a professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches courses on international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies.

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