Rethinking the Struggle Against Jihadism in the Wake of Brussels

Radical Islam recently reared its ugly head once again in an urban attack on civilians in Brussels, Belgium. Jihadist perpetrators killed, maimed, and terrorized soft urban target innocents and instilled a climate of fear among the general Western world population.

Although Western leaders immediately condemned the attack, their words alone will not defeat this enemy which places little value on human life, or the civilized world’s laws and customs of war. The West desperately needs new strategic thinking to effectively combat this evil.

Why did jihadists strike Brussels? The short answer is likely because the city serves as the capital of Belgium and the European Union (EU) as well as headquarters for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

The March 22, 2016 jihadist attack on unsuspecting civilians at a Brussels airport and subway left 35 people dead (including four Americans), and about 300 others wounded. It replicated in some respects recent jihadist attacks on civilians in Paris, France and San Bernardino, California and elsewhere.

The Islamic State claims this and other attacks on Western civilian targets (in clear contravention of Geneva conventions and protocols) are in reprisal for Western-led airstrikes (warplanes and drones) on areas it controls in places like Iraq, Syria and Libya.

In the aftermath of the Brussels attacks, Belgium’s Prime Minister, Charles Michel, called the Brussels jihadist attack “blind, violent, and cowardly,” and his interior minister, Jan Jambon, said, “Belgium’s problems with radical Islam are deeply rooted in society.” French President Francois Hollande called “Islamist terrorism” a root cause of terrorism. U.S. President Barack Obama condemned the attack as terrorism but steadfastly refused to identify “radical Islam” as its cause, perhaps fearful of offending the entire global Muslim community – with his administration going so far as to delete President Hollande’s ‘Islamic terrorism’ reference from the White House website.

Many Belgians and others considered Brussels’ Molenbeek municipality as the “jihadist capital of Europe” well before this attack, principally because of its 40,000 Muslim population and jihadists within it, and its Pan-European reach. However, it is important to note that no one knows for sure how many Muslims have been radicalized or are sympathetic to jihad in Molenbeek, Greater Brussels, Belgium or districts and cities in the 27 other European Union (EU) countries.

What is known is that Muslims comprise 20.7 million of EU’s 514 million total population (4 percent) and that the greatest Muslim populations are in France, Germany, and the United Kingdom. Radicalized Muslims (e.g., jihadists) have accounted for 11 of 13 of the deadliest terror attacks on European civilian targets and interests, according to Pew Research, International Journal for Environmental Science and Development, CIA World Factbook, and USA Today reports.

It is also known that about 6,600 jihadists from European Union countries are estimated to have traveled to Iraq and Syria to fight with the Islamic State, al Qaeda, and other terror groups (74 percent of them from France, United Kingdom, Germany and Belgium), and some 30 percent of them (1,980) have returned to Europe according to U.S. Intelligence Community Worldwide Threat Assessment, The Soufan Group, and The Hague’s International Centre for Counter-Terrorism reports.

In addition, it is believed over one million Muslim migrants and refugees entered Europe legally and illegally by land and sea in 2015.  The vast majority of them are from Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq with most arriving in Germany, Hungary and Sweden as their final destination according to United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Eurostat, and International Organization for Migration reports. Germany’s domestic intelligence chief, Hans-Georg Maassen, warned that authorities have “seen repeatedly that terrorists are being slipped in, disguised as refugees.”

What should the EU and/or the U.S. leaders do in response to continuing jihadist attacks on innocent civilians in urban hubs? Some first, not all-inclusive, steps to consider would be to open-up a dialog with allies to:

  1. Investigate the extent the civilized world’s laws and customs of war should apply to jihadists who purposely target innocent civilians for slaughter to achieve military and political advantage. They are designed, in part, to protect innocent civilians from warring parties – not those who plot and hide among civilians to carry-out jihad.
  1. Determine the extent intelligence gathering capabilities can be enhanced, and promptly acted on. Politically correct rules, such as not allowing Brussels police to raid terror suspect homes between the hours of 9PM to 5AM, embolden rather than pacify jihadists.
  1. Reevaluate the merits of the Schengen Agreement which allows for passport-free travel throughout most of the European Union, allowing EU jihadists to more easily travel to, and return from, warzones like Iraq and Syria.
  1. Reevaluate the merits of the revised U.S. Visa Waiver Program which allows visa-free travel to the United States for residents of 23 EU countries, to ensure the program doesn’t allow EU jihadists a pathway into the United States.
  1. Thoroughly vet, through extensive interviews and research, all incoming migrants and refugees entering EU and the U.S. from dangerous countries before admittance.

President Obama said the most damage terrorists can do is if they start changing how we live and what our values are. However, during his seven-year presidency, his approach to fighting terrorism has not succeeded in harnessing an enemy which is now successfully employing urban jihadist warfare in European, American, and other cities throughout the world. To prevent more jihadist attacks like Brussels, Paris and San Bernardino will require leadership which recognizes there is a rising threat from radical Islam and which will necessitate changes in current laws and policies to effectively combat and mitigate this threat, otherwise many more innocent lives may be lost.

Fred Gedrich is a foreign policy and national security analyst.  He served in the U.S. departments of State and Defense.


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