The latest terrorist attacks in Brussels follow the very recent ones in Istanbul and are yet further reminders of the extent of the threat facing us. Multifarious in nature, this type of extremism resembles the Greek mythical creature that sprouts two heads each time one is decapitated; thus, when one terrorist suspect is apprehended or a potential attack thwarted more rush to replace them. Single-pronged strategies, therefore – like the ones we are currently witnessing among various statutory agencies and governments – are simply futile.
Whether it is increasing security or curtailing particular civil liberties in an attempt to intercept further attacks, the issue of how to effectively address precursory stages before an individual embraces terrorism continues to be an enigma. Some governments remain reticent about their purported counter radicalisation programmes while others – like the UK’s – continue to face an unsurprising backlash from targeted communities that have been unfairly stigmatised.
This raises the question; why, in the face of what appears to be a losing battle, strategies of marginalisation continue? Also, as the more conventional warfare efforts to combat extremism continue to fail, (i.e. various security apparatus’ inability to thwart recent attacks, the continuing civil war in Syria, the establishment of Daesh in Libya etc.) what has become of the other, ‘softer’ measures to fight it? If indeed these measures do exist, where are they and shouldn’t we be safer as a result?
Ignorance isn’t bliss
The four month search for Salah Abdeslam centred around the Molenbeek district, a poor neighbourhood largely inhabited by 2nd /3rd generation immigrants, many of them Muslim. It is interesting to observe that, despite an extensive search for him and his accomplices, the authorities failed to engage with the local communities among which they resided. There does not appear to be any type of community liaison or relationship between the two entities, typifying yet again the type of hierarchical top-down community-targeted approach towards minorities. This continues to be the default position between statutory agencies and particular Muslim communities, as opposed to the more productive community – centred approach. There is a significant difference between the two strategies; the latter fostering better community relations that result in varying levels of transparency, communication and empowerment.
It was recently revealed that Ibrahim el-Bakraoui, the suicide bomber at Zaventem airport, left a note expressing desperation surrounding his predicament as the security net tightened following the arrest of Abdeslam. This raises yet another the question as to whether he was in a position to communicate with, or reach out to members of his wider community – those who could confront and possibly dissuade him from the destructive and murderous course of action he chose? From the information disclosed so far, his message was not apparently directed towards anyone – not even his extremist cell. Had the wider community been more accessible, active and visible, they could, perhaps, have intervened. I make this assumption based on STREET’s experience of tackling a similar issue in the past:
When an individual, suspected of murder, contacted the organisation for assistance out of fear of harsh police treatment upon his imminent arrest, he was advised to seek legal representation. Both he and his family insisted on visiting us, requesting that we intervene to provide community support. As a result of the organisation’s uncompromising but civic representation of its target audience among the wider local community, it was able to fulfill their request. Suffice it to say that this particular incident reached a mutually conducive conclusion for the suspect and authorities.
Effective grassroots engagement: The missing link
Grassroots engagement enables credible and effective voices, from among the same communities these few violently radicalised individuals emerge, to articulate, challenge and counter extremist narratives directly. Confronting such narratives and their protagonists within this environmental context provides an opportunity to dilute the toxicity of their message during the most crucial period in which it has gained potency. Additionally, the ability to instill doubt against such narratives at this stage is another important feature of timely grassroots engagement. Both social and familial networks play equally important roles in dissuading an individual from his intended trajectory towards violence. However, if these networks are considered suspect and part of the extremist mosaic, their members will opt to remain insular, concerned primarily with their self-preservation. I previously made reference to this:
‘…the continuing usage of inaccurate terminologies and typologies to define and categorise Salafis and Takfeeris [violent extremists] as one and the same entity, serve only to isolate and stigmatise the former movement who have, thus far, proved among the more effective in countering the violent extremist ideology.’
I further observed:
‘Continuing negative portrayal of Salafis may in fact result in a return to their previous insularity/isolation from wider society which, in turn, may further marginalise them and lead to proliferating the threat of ‘Jihadis’ embedding themselves even further among the formers’ communities.’
The example provided of STREET’s work could have progressed along a totally different trajectory if the individual had decided to adhere to the initial advice he received to escape abroad. Instead, he resorted to his social and familial networks for advice – despite the severity of the charges and potential consequences facing him. When juxtaposing this example with Ibrahim el-Bakraoui’s desperate position, it is not too difficult to see how a similar network may have impacted positively on his ill-fated and murderous actions on 22nd March.
One of the panaceas to tackle the increasingly vulnerable state we now find ourselves facing almost everywhere – not just the west – is to no longer ignore the experience and expertise found at grassroots. The theoretical ‘Funnel’ framework developed during my PhD research posited communities and organisations like STREET at its neck where the ‘gravitational pull’ towards extremism is strongest within a societal context. Other, more mainstream communities are positioned further up towards the mouth of the funnel, addressing other aspects of social disengagement etc.
The introduction of this article described a significant characteristic of the enemy – its ability to multiply upon being wounded. It is no ordinary beast; therefore, unconventional methods are required to tackle it. Broader societal strategies involving sections from all relevant communities are required to defeat it. A lesson could be learned from the fictitious account of Hercules’ battle with the Hydra in which we witness that:
‘…[his] second labor…was to kill the monster. He did so by burning the neck after cutting off each head…’
Only those most qualified, experienced and possessing a track record in successfully countering extremism are able to directly confront this threat. To continue ignoring or overlooking this very important observation amounts to sheer folly on the part of those who continue to marginalise such communities. Statutory assistance or support is not required; a cessation of stigmatising them is. This is urgently needed because, unlike the mythical creature described above, the threat of further terrorist attacks is very real.
 Dan Bloom: Paris terror attacks: David Cameron says we MUST launch Syrian airstrikes on ISIS to ‘cut off snake’s head’: Mirror Online, 17th November 2015: http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/paris-terror-attacks-david-cameron-6847047
 Prevent – criminalising Muslims: Revolutionary Communist Group, 18th February 2016: http://www.revolutionarycommunist.org/britain/fight-racism/4257-pc180216
 Kronfeld, M J: Killing Them With Kindness: A Softer Approach to Preventing Violent Extremism and Countering Radicalization in the War on Terrorism, 2012: www.firstamendmentstudies.org/wp/pdf/1st_pl_kronfeld.pdf
 Yaron Steinbuch and Jamie Schram: Suspect in Paris attacks wounded, captured in Brussels shootout, 18th March 2016: New York Post: http://nypost.com/2016/03/18/fingerprints-of-paris-attacks-suspect-found-in-brussels-apartment/
 Spalek, B: Counter-Terrorism: Community-Based Approaches To Preventing Terror Crime, Palgrave MacMillan, 2012, Chapter 2, p.27
 The Irish Times: Brussels Suicide Bomber’s note : ‘I don’t know what to do’, 23rd March 2016: http://www.irishtimes.com/news/world/europe/brussels-suicide-bomber-note-i-don-t-know-what-to-do-1.2584387
 As a result of the mitigating circumstances surrounding the incident, this individual received a lesser charge of manslaughter and was released within a few years.
 Baker, A H: Extremists in Our Midst: Confronting Terror, Palgrave MacMillan, 2011 & 2015, p.9
 Baker, A H: Extremists in Our Midst: Confronting Terror, Palgrave MacMillan, 2011 & 2015