What would effective Counter-Terrorism look like after Brussels?

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

The various nostrums proposed to counter Daesh (ISIL, ISIS) terrorism in Europe and North America by Donald Trump and Ted Cruz (armed patrols by police of putative “Muslim neighborhoods”, a Muslim exclusion act, etc.) are of course complete non-starters. So too are killing the children of terrorists or carpet-bombing cities like Mosul. They are unconstitutional or war crimes and are impracticable, so they are just demagoguery– hatemongering in search for votes by bigots and the ignorant.

When Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols blew up the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995, killing 168 people, injuring more than 680 others, and destroying or damaging 324 buildings, the response of the FBI was not to suggest armed patrols of lower middle class white neighborhoods.

One thing law enforcement considered was that McVeigh used a fertilizer bomb. So the authorities began being more careful to monitor large purchases of fertilizer. You zero in on the technical enablers of the instruments of terrorism, not on the ethnic groups from which the terrorists hail. In the case of Brussels, the perpetrators used TATP, and European authorities just need to focus on making it harder to make or easier to detect (I’ll leave the technical details to the experts). Even easily available materials can be monitored. When meth manufacturers started using over the counter sudafed in the US, authorities started requiring a prescription for it. Plus, there are ways to detect TATP and it would be less costly to implement them at airports than to try to monitor all potential terrorists all the time.

Just organizing and training police or gendarmeries for counter-terrorism is important. Belgium authorities did not know what to do with Turkey’s warning that Ibrahim El Bakraoui had been trying to join ISIL in Syria but was detained and deported. That report should have been a big red warning sign (not to mention that El Bakraoui was in violation of his parole and could just have been picked up and sent back to prison very easily). These essential mistakes are procedural and come from police and police officials not recognizing warning signals or not problematizing terrorism as a category of activity that requires vigilance.

You don’t focus on ethnicity, you focus on particular networks. Most lower-middle class whites in the US are, it goes without saying, not dangerous. Most Moroccan-Belgians in Brussels are upright citizens, and they were among the victims of the bombings, about which there are few headlines. You just have to invest in infiltrating small networks. You can’t watch everyone who goes to a white supremacist meeting or who goes to fight in Syria and comes back, but you can watch the groups they are likely to join. Undercover FBI field officers have done a lot of excellent and dangerous work in the US among white supremacist groups.

In the instance of terrorism coming out of discriminated-against communities, community policing can be effective. The representatives of the state have to learn to treat those communities with dignity. Terrorism doesn’t seem to be impelled by poverty, but by humiliation. That is why Trump/Cruz hatemongering makes things worse, not better.

Civil society organizations like the Southern Poverty Law Center can play an important role in keeping up public vigilance and monitoring dangerous small networks.

Alerting members of a community to the dangers of the radicalization of their youth is also important. If little Johnny shows up with neo-Nazi tats, that might be a bad sign. Like community policing, community awareness is something that requires respect and building of relationships.

Finally, keeping terrorism, among other crimes and threats to life in society in perspective remains important. It is distressing and needs to be combated, but most people in the US and Europe are far more likely to be hit by lightning than to be killed by terrorism.

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relate video:

Euronews: “JUST IN: Suspects charged in Brussels”

7 Responses

  1. There are two points you brought up. First, let’s not forget that the FBI ignored all reports from Russia’s FSB regarding the Tsarnaevs meeting with Chechen terrorists. Secondly, the Boston PD had no Arabic speakers (aside from from anybody) in contact with the mosque that threw out the elder Tsarnaev for making radical comments.

    This is not isolated “bad” policing. The Belgian police have no Arabic-speaking police for outreach and patrolling. In the US, I offered my services as an Arabic-speaker for free to a large police department with a mosque where numerous terrorists (now dead or in jail) had preached. I was more interested in outreach and to act as a police liaison. The hiring authority had no problem rudely rejecting me, a decorated Vietnam Veteran with a clean record.

    I would say we have a “police problem” more than a “terrorist problem” on our hands. There were plenty of opportunities to pick these terrorists up, but the police are way too incompetent to deal with this issue.

  2. All true Professor Cole, but what you wrote here isn’t easy enough, to come down to a cruel enough ‘Sound Bite’.

  3. Thank you. Your posts are what is needed in the current political dialog in this country.

  4. “You can’t watch everyone who goes….. to fight in Syria and comes back….”
    Why are people in Europe allowed to go to Syria to fight or be trained by Daesh or other jihadists in the first place? In the US you would be subject to criminal prosecution for giving material support to a terrorist organization. If returnees knew they were likely to face jail at the border, they wouldn’t come back or wouldn’t go in the first place. I would add to criminalization the threat of loss of citizenship for active, military participants . This seems to me like a likely avenue for narrowing the sweep of anti-terrorism activity. I have not seen it mentioned. To be sure some potential terrorists may still slip past intelligence surveillance and some may think criminalization of travel to wage jihad too severe a human rights deprivation but the alternatives are far worse and as we are seeing, are leading to demands for unacceptable abridgments of the rights of millions of European Muslims.

    • In the UK at least, returning “jihadists” do face jail. But this in turn causes its own problems. What if you’re little more than a kid, go out there, find out how you’ve been tricked and are then desperate to come home? You also forget that they do not go to Syria directly – just book a holiday flight to Turkey and then get a bus to the Syrian border.

  5. Excellent post that makes way too much sense in our 6 second sound bite culture. As you suggest, people tend to get carried away with all the spooky ideology, but it’s really all about proper policing. The perpetrators are not “terrorists”, they are criminal filth. And the way to deal with criminals is to systematically infiltrate their networks and take them down. I just hope the Belgians get their act together. It seems their bureaucracy is far from streamlined and is in fact, quite convoluted, which apparently leads to a sort of rigor mortis when it comes time to act.

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