Last week I was in Brussels taking part in a discussion on radicalisation in prison. The event was hosted by the European Policy Centre, an independent think tank normally graced by the EU aristocracy. Perhaps the uncomfortable subject matter – the ghost at the banquet of European integration – kept Junker, Rompuy et al away. Maybe it was just a niche subject on a slow day.
I was joined on stage by two other speakers – a Belgian senior police officer and a deradicalisation worker in one of Belgium’s prisons. They have their work cut out for them. Belgium has been both an enthusiastic exporter of, and victim of, Islamic State-inspired terrorism over the last three years. In fact the problem of violent extremism in the country has been deeply entrenched over decades.
The dysfunctional craziness of Belgian administration and politics, the strategic location of the country inside the borderless Schengen area, the poorly coordinated and overwhelmed security apparatus, poor migrants poorly integrated – all these have conspired to create ideal conditions for extremism to grow unchecked. The prison system, chronically overcrowded and violent, has also played its part in assisting terrorism in the name of Daesh. The brothers responsible for the suicide bombing of Brussels airport in 2016, Ibrahim and Khalid el-Bakraoui, had been imprisoned there and reportedly converted to violent jihad by proselytisers. Abdelhamid Abaaoud and Salah Abdeslam, involved in the planning and execution of the Paris attacks in November 2015, met in a Belgian prison. The list goes on.
Given this context you would probably expect the discourse to be fairly robust in relation to answering the question posed, “what more can be done?” It was certainly illuminating, but not in a good way.
The senior policeman spent a good half of his presentation focusing almost obsessively on the human rights training that his officers, some apparently reluctantly, were being made to undertake. A curious priority, for sure. The prison worker spent an inordinate amount of time criticising the prison system for making his work a “failure” and describing failures of the state to deal with the integration of angry young men who lacked identity and purpose and were therefore ripe for radicalisation. “Vulnerability” was bandied around by both as the pre-eminent cause and consequence of terrorist offending.
Neither of these viewpoints are without merit. We ought to insist on agents of the state protecting human rights as these underpin the distinction between free democracies and murderous theocracies. The hugely impressive young prison worker was robust and ingenious when it came to confronting Islamist extremists with their deformed view of Islam and ought to have been rightly frustrated if the system wasn’t playing its part in prison and in society. Many terrorist offenders are vulnerable in the sense that their morality has been subverted by an absolutist medieval doctrine that gives theological permission to commit mass murder. And there’s the rub.
What I didn’t hear from either of my colleagues was anything about the primary driver for action against Islamist extremists or indeed any violent extremists. That their rights must always be subordinate to the right of citizens of whatever creed or colour to be protected from their heinous activities. That, to an extent, their rights can and should be violated by the law to protect the rest of us.
But surely, goes the argument, if we infringe the rights of terrorists too much we create conditions of alienation which encourage others to follow in their footsteps. Surely in restricting rights too much the state destroys the very freedom which sets us apart from the dismal world view of IS. All true, and there is evidence to suggest that the Belgian government is finally waking up to the fact the monsters are inside the castle and it needs to take action.
But my concern is more about an institutional mindset I’ve come across throughout Europe that, at its front end in the fight against terrorism, seems far too concerned about the rights of mass murderers they are trying to deter or, failing that, bring to justice. You won’t see this hand-wringing or virtue signalling in places like Jordan, where IS poses a real and existential threat to the state.
For complex reasons, but undeniably, Muslims are by far the largest group of victims of Islamist terrorism worldwide. They deserve and need protection by the state, just like any other set of citizens. They are not a homogenous group although in Belgium they tend to live in segregated communities, mainly in the capital. And here’s something we do far too little thinking about – for every terrorist suspect home-grown in Molenbeek and Schaerbeek there are a hundred young men with the same heritage, background and life chances who don’t get pulled in, who reject the nihilistic violence of IS. What distinguishes them? How could their experience be understood and harnessed?
My Belgian police colleague talked about Molenbeek, that incubator for some of the most notorious terrorists in modern European history. He spoke about the efforts to introduce community policing there, which is an excellent way of introducing law, order and stability in a place long notorious for high levels of drug and street crime. There is a strong association between violent crime in these areas and radicalisation. Bringing every police effort to bear, robustly, on this problem seems to be indicated.
Which is not to say – again for emphasis – that we ought to adopt principles and practices antithetical to human rights in the defeat of terrorism. No way. But psychology matters in the fight against terrorism. In this geopolitical game the stakes are high. If you don’t look up for a fight, you’re more likely to be messed with.
I heard a lot about rights and not enough about responsibilities – without which rights are meaningless. I made my point about remembering the primacy of ordinary citizens’ human rights in the struggle against terrorism and described the approach I had advocated in UK prisons in my report to Government on extremism in 2016. I was clear then as I am now that the challenge by IS requires a complex societal response to tackle years of low attainment, aimlessness and social exclusion in the communities that foster extremism. But that will fail without an accompanying and decisive security response. So much for speaking softly – it’s a reliable crowd-pleaser in a Brussels think tank. But the big stick? Not so much.