As a scholar of the European Union (EU), I am often in Brussels. It is the political heart of Europe, seat of the EU and NATO. And the capital of Belgium, a divided federal state.
It was targeted by terrorists last week because it symbolizes the unity of Europe (with two locations chosen specifically for that reason), yet it also embodies Europe’s societal, cultural and political dysfunction.
Brussels is a weak link in an easily accessible network of European capitals with large immigrant populations. Unfortunately, this was only the latest in a string of attacks by radical Muslim terrorists in Europe: the al-Qaida inspired train bombing in Madrid in 2004 and and the London bus bombings in 2005 stand out. So do the attacks by “lone wolves” killing Jews in 2012 in France and 2014 in Brussels and, more recently, the Charlie Hebdo and Bataclan massacres by Islamic State.
Tuesday’s attacks were desperate moves by the Belgian terrorist cell after its discovery a few weeks ago and the arrest of Islamic State’s most wanted terrorist in Brussels.
Yet while many similar attacks occurred throughout the world, those in Europe made headlines around the world because they represent a new terror threat in a region that was previously considered safe. European nations had experience with separatist terrorism (think of Spain’s ETA or the IRA in Northern Ireland) and right-wing extremist attacks in Norway and Germany.
The recent attacks are different because they stem from a global jihadist network and often involve radicalized citizens from European states. This makes them much harder to avert as they cause not only widespread fear but also helplessness. On one hand, transnational terror networks operate swiftly using strategically high- and low-tech means to achieve their destructive goals, while moving with relative ease across Europe. On the other hand, European societies have not sufficiently accepted and integrated immigrants, only to discover that some of their own citizens have become radicalized.
So what can be done to avoid more bloodshed? Terrorism can never be fully eradicated, but information sharing among European governments, working toward a peaceful stabilization of the Middle East and a better integration of Muslim immigrants in Europe will go a long way toward preventing more attacks. A new European Counterterrorism Center was just established in January to share information among police and security forces, track terror financing and detect online radicalization. But it will take time and political will to build up its capabilities.
While counter-terrorism measures have been strengthened and security forces increased across Europe, a sole reliance on security and surveillance will make citizens with immigrant backgrounds feel even more alienated and vulnerable to recruitment by terrorist networks. And it defies European values of liberal societies and open borders. That also means that Europeans need to have honest discussions about immigration, racism and Islam, and continue to stand up for free societies. Otherwise the terrorists will have achieved their goals.
If there is one thing that unites Europeans in these difficult times of economic and refugee crises that seem to divide them, it is the conviction that terrorism is unacceptable. In this, the United States and Europe see eye to eye, and they should cooperate to strengthen each other’s capabilities to prevent further atrocities.
But this requires smart trans-Atlantic policy coordination, not the simplistic defamation of a whole religion combined with threats to expel all Muslims, as European right-wing populists as well as GOP presidential frontrunner Donald Trump have suggested.
Similarly, a U.S. disengagement from NATO, as proposed by Trump, would be damaging to both Americans and Europeans, and has been criticized by former NATO commander Adm. James Stavridis, although the latter position fails to recognize that the West’s foreign policy is partially to blame for the rise of Islamic State.
What is needed now is unity in values and purpose, not fear- and warmongering.
Markus Thiel is associate professor of politics and international relations and Florida International University. He is also director of the European & Eurasian Studies Program.