Last week's twin terror attacks in Brussels, which have claimed the lives of at least 35 victims and injured more than 300 from 40 nationalities, has deepened convictions that Europe has become a battleground in the war against extremists.
The challenge for European officials and intelligence agencies is that the enemy is not foreign. It's not an enemy that resides in faraway Raqqa but in the heart of EU capitals. It's an enemy from within; born and raised in mostly impoverished and closed neighbourhoods, such as Brussels' notorious Molenbeek. And while Daesh (the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) is being defeated in Syria and Iraq, the organisation's tentacles are now reaching the heart of the old continent.
Detailed operational information about the perpetrators of last week's suicide bombings remains sketchy, but it is now clear that the attacks are linked to last November's deadly Paris massacres. All of those involved, most of them second generation Belgian nationals, had been in Syria where they were trained and indoctrinated. Fears of other European cells getting ready to strike are real and the heightened security alert now extends from London to Berlin and from Madrid to Rome.
The debate is heating up over grave intelligence failures by Belgian authorities and European security agencies. Most of those involved had been arrested before or were on a terror watch list. One terrorist suspect was handed over by Turkey to the Dutch last July and was later released. At least two were interrogated by French and Belgian police in the aftermath of the Paris bombings but were allowed to go.
It is ironic that while Daesh has been losing ground in Syria and Iraq, its terror network is expanding in Europe. With few exceptions, the majority of extremists in Europe are natives who had fought in Syria and Iraq and who managed to return to the continent. About 1,600 European extremists are said to have made their way back. As Daesh loses territory, its adherents are striking soft targets in Europe and elsewhere. A few days after the Brussels attacks, a suicide bomber blew himself up in a football stadium near Baghdad, killing over 40 people, mostly teenagers. While the carnage received little publicity in the western press, it is evident that the operation coincided with latest Iraqi army advances near Mosul.
Special US operations in Syria have weakened the command and control structure of the militant organisation. Last Friday US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter announced that a qualitative strike had taken out a number of Daesh leaders including the second man in the group's hierarchy. And on Sunday the Damascus regime announced that it had liberated the ancient city of Palmyra from Daesh. Syrian Kurdish fighters managed to push the militant fighters out of key regions in northern and eastern Syria as well.
A political deal in Syria will focus efforts to conquer Raqqa and rid most of the country of Daesh fighters. While much more difficult, the liberation of Mosul will effectively end the terrorist organisation's presence in Iraq as well. But it is too early to say that the war against Daesh has been won. But while Daesh's strength in the Middle East is diminishing, its worldwide threat continues to rise. The challenge for Europe is different from that of Syria and Iraq. In these countries an equitable political settlement that will satisfy ethnic and sectarian groups will certainly contain and reduce the threat of religious militancy. The major political players in Iraq now realise that and are pushing for a new deal that will bring the country's Sunnis back into the political fold.
Both the US and Russia have reached an understanding over Syria and for the first time in five years there is hope that the regime and the opposition will find common ground to salvage the country and launch a new political process. But while these developments could eventually undermine Daesh's physical presence, the challenge for the region lies in addressing core issues behind the radicalisation of Muslim youth. An ideological counter-logic will have to emerge to restore Islam's image as a universal message of peace, diversity and coexistence. This must be accompanied by genuine initiatives for political, economic and social reforms.
The situation in Europe and the West in general, is different. Much has been said and written about the challenge of integration and/or assimilation by European Muslim communities, as opposed to Muslims in Canada and the US. Belgium and France present a complex case study of the utter failure by both governments and community leaders to create an environment where second generation European Muslims could have a sense of belonging, identity and loyalty to their host countries. Muslim ghetto neighbourhoods in Paris and Brussels will continue to be a breeding ground for violence and radicalism. Those young men returning from Syria and Iraq will present a real and present danger to European societies for some time to come. The backlash will come in the form of the rise of the nationalist right in future elections. European leaders must confront such challenges if universal cultural and political values are to survive.
It is not enough for Europe to bolster security cooperation and strengthen intelligence gathering mechanisms in order to preempt future terrorist attacks. Europe, now home to millions of Muslims, must address the socio-economic realities of its own minorities. Those thousands of young European Muslims who have joined Daesh proved to be the most radical and uncompromising. Sooner or later, Europe must address the root cause of the radicalisation of its own citizens.
By Osama Al Sharif
Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.
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