Like the assaults in Paris last year, the March 22 terrorist attacks in Belgium prompted a wave of arrests and energized attempts by European authorities to disrupt the Islamic State and other jihadist operations. But arrests will not solve the intractable problem of radicalized Muslims bent on attacking Europe. Until the underlying issues that help drive radicalization on the Continent are addressed, authorities will be neutralizing only the immediate threat, not countering its root cause. In the meantime, jihadists will continue to pose a threat in Europe and elsewhere.
Police and security forces across Europe arrested dozens of purported Islamic State operatives in the wake of the Brussels bombings
. The arrests have not been limited to Belgium and France; they have also taken place in Germany, Italy and the United Kingdom. Though these operations may help to identify and dismantle an Islamic State network (or a network of networks), Europe's problems run much deeper than this one layer of jihadists.
The Roots of Radicalization
Geopolitics has tightly woven together the European and Muslim worlds since the earliest days of Islam. The entanglements started with the Umayyad invasion of Spain and France in the early 700s and continued through the Crusades, the Ottoman sieges of Vienna in the 1500s and 1600s, and the European colonization of North Africa and South Asia in the 1700s and 1800s. The fall of the Ottoman Empire in the wake of World War I and the European colonization of the Middle East drew the two cultures even closer together.
The proximity of North Africa and Turkey to Southern Europe and European colonization efforts, combined with the desire in the Muslim world to seek education and employment in Europe, has resulted in large populations of Muslims living on the Continent. But this close relationship has not been without friction. Though a large portion of Muslims in Europe come from families who have lived there for four or five generations, many have not integrated into European society, living instead in isolated, Muslim-dominated areas. In a telling example of this isolation, Matthew Levitt, the director of the Stein Program on Counterterrorism and Intelligence at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, noted in a recent Politico article that only eight of the 114 imams in Brussels speak any of Belgium's traditional languages.
Moreover, the weak European economy has disproportionately affected the Continent's Muslim population and has created an alarmingly high unemployment rate among young Muslims. In addition to frequent discrimination in the job market, this has left many Muslims feeling alienated, disenfranchised and resentful. Combined with the European welfare state
, in which work is not necessary to survival, these sentiments have created a climate where Muslims who are exposed to radical discourse can more easily be recruited into radical political or even militant activities.
Europe's immigration and asylum laws, which granted refuge to many jihadist ideologues who were persecuted in their home countries, have exacerbated the situation. High-profile radicals such as Omar Bakri Mohammed
, Abu Qatada, Abu Hamza-al Masri
and Mullah Krekar
, among many others, were allowed to set up shop on the Continent, and Europe's Muslim areas have provided rich environments for the jihadist preachers seeking to recruit disaffected Muslims to their cause.
Although European countries have taken steps to expel or extradite many of these old-guard jihadist imams in recent years, they have been replaced by a second generation of preachers, including Khalid Zerkani, a Belgian citizen of Moroccan origin who was convicted in July 2015 (along with Paris attack mastermind Abdelhamid Abaaoud) for running Belgium's largest jihadist recruitment network. Abaaoud, who was tried in absentia, was killed in a police raid in Saint Denis, France, five days after the Paris attacks.
The sheer number of European jihadists who have traveled to Iraq, Syria, and more recently, Libya, demonstrates that the issue of disaffected Muslim populations has only grown in recent years
. The refugee crisis, along with incidents such as the French burqa ban
and the anti-Islamic rhetoric of politicians such as Geert Wilders
, reinforces the narrative put forward by jihadist recruiters that Islam is under attack from Europeans, aiding their recruitment efforts.
A Unique Kind of Threat
Just as the Muslim communities in Europe and the United States differ, so does the nature of the jihadist threat in each. In the United States, where Muslims are more integrated into the whole of society, plotters tend to be more self-radicalized and aspirational. Once they become radicalized — frequently via the internet — it is common for them to be arrested as they seek assistance with their plots from individuals who turn out to be FBI agents or police informants working on sting operations.
But Europe's concentrated and disenfranchised Muslim population makes it easier for radicalized Muslims there to find confederates who are not police informants. In many cases, European cell members have known one another since childhood, have been in street gangs together, or have been incarcerated at the same time. Even more aspirational and inept groups, such as the four men who were charged in a 2012 plot to attack a British army base in Luton, can be part of a larger radicalized community and have friends and relatives who have been involved in plots or who have traveled overseas to wage jihad. This was true of Toulouse shooter Mohamed Merah
. Although he conducted his attacks alone, Merah had long been part of a larger militant community and had traveled to places such as Pakistan and Afghanistan to train and fight. French authorities also reportedly investigated Merah's older brother, Abdelkader, in 2007 for helping European Muslims travel to Iraq to fight.
There is a great deal of variety in the way Muslims are radicalized, but recruiters have consistently used mosques, gyms and university Islamic associations as places to spot potential recruits. The recruits are usually then taken aside, away from the view of the community, and radicalized one-on-one or in small groups. We saw this method used with Abaaoud and Zerkani in Brussels. Recruiters often have contacts with other radical cells inside Europe as well as links to jihadist and militant groups overseas that they can use to facilitate travel to training camps and war zones.
Though young Muslim men can become radicalized and are often sought for the purpose of recruitment, they are not the only demographic susceptible to radicalization. Older adults, such as 39-year-old Hakim Benladghem
or 37-year-old French particle physicist Adlene Hicheur
, have also become radicalized. Individuals with degrees, practical career experience and clean criminal backgrounds can travel outside Europe without raising suspicion more easily than younger men. Women can also be radicalized and can serve as important conduits for funds and intelligence, as recruiters or propagandists, and occasionally in terrorist operations.
Most of the attackers in Paris and Brussels were French and Belgian citizens of North African or Middle Eastern origin, but European jihadists have come from a variety of backgrounds. Would-be shoe bomber Richard Reid was an Englishman; London subway bomber Germaine Lindsay was born in Jamaica; Lindsay's wife, Samantha Lewthwaite
, is British; and jihadist Eric Breininger was German.
Accurate counts of the number of European Muslims fighting or training abroad are difficult to find, but according to an April 1 report from the International Center for Counterterrorism, there are between 3,922 and 4,294 Western Europeans fighting abroad. Not all Europeans fighting abroad are jihadists. Some who have traveled to Syria and Iraq, for example, are nationalists, non-jihadist Islamists or even anti-jihadist fighters. The majority, however, are jihadists or have joined jihadist groups.
Although fighters returning to Europe pose perhaps the most acute threat
, jihadist militants — including those who have not been able to travel overseas to train and fight with the Islamic State, al Qaeda or other groups — are a multidimensional problem. Homegrown jihadist operatives present a significant and sometimes global threat, even if they lack, for the most part, the capabilities of their militarily trained colleagues. For example, Amedy Coulibaly
shot up a kosher deli in Paris on Jan. 9, 2015. Coulibaly shot and wounded a runner on Jan. 7 and killed a policewoman on Jan. 8 before being slain inside the deli, where he had killed four people. He was also the man who procured the weapons his friends Said and Cherif Kouachi used in the attack on Charlie Hebdo, a French satirical publication.
Taken together, the conditions affecting Europe's Muslim population have made it difficult for intelligence and law enforcement agencies to mitigate the jihadist threat to the Continent. Though these agencies are painfully aware of the threat that exists, they are simply overwhelmed by the number of potential attackers they have to monitor. Problems with coordination among European intelligence and law enforcement agencies
— and even within some countries, such as Belgium — only compound the problem.
So although the recent arrests linked to the network of Islamic State operatives responsible for the Brussels and Paris attacks have reportedly thwarted several plots and taken many potential attackers off the street, they are addressing only the tip of the iceberg. There are still other Islamic State and al Qaeda networks to be concerned about, and numerous self-radicalized jihadists to be identified and stopped. But as long as the ideology of jihadism survives, European authorities will try to thwart the individuals and cells assessed to be the most dangerous. However, they will not be able to arrest their way out of this problem, and it will continue to haunt Europe for years to come.