The Challenge Of Countering Islamist Terrorism In Mainland Europe

The emergence of widespread Islamist terrorism in key European countries over the last few years has revealed some significant fault-lines across all areas of counter-terrorism from policy to practice, from prevention to response.

Reluctance to discuss weaknesses and concern over revealing them to our enemies has in fact created our greatest weakness, and it is being exploited by international terrorist organisations everyday. Lack of discussion has, as is often the case in the public sector, led to lack of investment in CT infrastructure, equipment, research and training, and unequal strengths among EU member states hence leaving pockets of very vulnerable and ‘at risk’ communities.

These mainly Muslim communities often suffer lower if not no police patrols, no public investment into community support projects and hence the resulting growth in crime amidst a wealthier and hostile host community. It’s not rocket science that if there are no police patrols criminals flourish and become the moral authority. Yes criminals, sometimes terrorists, become the moral authority in parts of our European cities.

Families faced with rising crime and increasing unemployment in their neighbourhood with young people left jobless and sometimes homeless are becoming more and more isolated from the state. Communities with high migration and diverse demographies begin to be ‘wiped off’ the media landscape unless a major crime is revealed and then brings often unhelpful media attention, inflaming already existing tensions. This isolation from the state, lack of positive interaction between frontline public sector organisations such as the Police and the community leave the door wide open for organised criminals and extremists to advance their dubious morals and legitimacy in a community under pressure surrounded by a hostile and suspicious society. France, which has suffered the most among EU member states in the last two years is a textbook example.

Speaking recently at Europol in the Hague, I outlined potential ways forward for Policing and Security and Intelligence Agencies in France, Belgium, Italy, Greece and Germany. Chief among my recommendations were increased Community (friendly) Police patrols in high risk areas in order to both deter criminal ‘start-ups’ from growing but also to give the community confidence to themselves deter crime.

Community policing is ‘neighbourhood back-up’ it’s the absolute pre-requisite for successful prevention and response to terrorism. Building relationships between law enforcement and the people takes time and boots on the ground, it means knowing the first names of your local neighbourhood police. In the case of the UK community policing has provided the lifeblood to terrorism investigations the length and breadth of the country, providing intelligence and timely warnings from Muslim community members who want to bring an end to the terrorism that has blighted now a generation of its youth.

Those weekly police surgeries, nightly patrols, quick response to burglaries, talks in high schools do the work required to claim back the moral authority from criminals and violent extremists, and importantly, relaxes the relationship between host societies and communities with migrant histories.

And this is where the problem of terrorism in mainland Europe begins to reveal itself. Most European countries simply DON’T DO THIS. Speaking with Police leaders who often have sat with their head in their hands and hearing them say that they had no mechanism to make these changes, there was no likelihood of change and that it would take a government decision to implement force-wide community-led policing in ‘at risk’ communities was nothing short of heartbreaking as much as it was scary.

The immediate future for France and its closest neighbours is this; less community policing means growth of crime in small communities. Reduced or no relationship actually quickly becomes hostility, means less trust between state and the people, means less intelligence flow, means more terrorism.

Ultimately the objectives of counter-terrorism cannot be achieved without the people, so a strategy that maintains hostility if not growing it, between communities under pressure and the police is only playing into the hands of terrorists who quickly foster a sense of belonging with the isolated and disenfranchised.

A well known African Proverb warns that when a village fails to fully initiate a member of their youth, that youth will one day burn the whole village down just to feel it’s warmth. However this proverb is not about youth, it’s about belonging and the truth we all share; the hunger for belonging.