The fight against Islamic radicalisation and terrorism will take a generation to resolve, a Brussels policy briefing organised by the Counter Extremism Project Europe (CEP Europe) has heard. The meeting, which comes in the wake of the deadly Paris attacks last Friday which killed 129 people was told the conflict is “on a par with the fight against Nazism.”
The Paris attacks were the latest in a series of recent Islamist terrorist atrocities which has also seen the downing of a Russian airliner in Egypt with the loss of 224 lives.
Entitled, “Post-Paris attacks: what role now for EU radicalisation prevention policy?”, the discussion addressed the range of reasons why young people join terrorist groups like Islamic State, which has claimed responsibility for the Paris atrocity.
The briefing on Wednesday at Brussels’ Residence Palace, heard there is “no single” root cause for the recruitment of vulnerable Europeans to fight in overseas conflicts. An estimated 500 and 1,900 young Muslims have left Belgium and France respectively to join IS.
According to Europol in January this year, as many as 5,000 Europeans are fighting in the region and their number continues to grow.
Various reasons are cited, including social and economic exclusion, government policies and parental failures, it was said. Opening a lively, two-hour exchange of views, Alexander Ritzmann, a German-based policy analyst, asked whether, given reported security failings in the run-up to events in Paris, enough was being done to effectively tackle the issue, including by representatives from the Muslim communities themselves.
Nasser Weddady, a radicalisation prevention expert and one of two keynote speakers, was particularly scathing of a succession of Western policies which, he believes, are largely responsible for a “staggering failure” to steer young Muslim men and women away from the reach of IS, or Daesh as it is sometimes called.
He said, “We have to recognise that all the proposals and tactics adopted since 9/11 have failed. The West has failed to make the case that democracy is far better than Jihadism and an extreme form of Islam. It is a dismal failure and one I find very troubling but we have to be honest enough to admit it.”
The US-based expert went on, “It is also very important to recognise that the fight against Jihadism and radicalisation is a generational one and is not something which is going to be resolved in a year or two. The infestation of Islamic radicalisation goes so deep it will require radical action to deal with it. People need to realise this.”
He told the debate the argument against radicalisation could be won “but only if greater resources are made available.””This is something that must be done not by governments but by civil society,” he insisted.
Another guest speaker, Moad El Boudaati, a prevention and community outreach specialist in Belgium, argued for an “alternative narrative” against that offered by IS and such groups.
He said, “This is the big challenge. Islamic State brings out glossy videos which can appear very appealing to vulnerable young men and women who may live on the margins of society. The question is: how do we counter this?”
El Boudaati related his experience in working with vulnerable youth who are susceptible to radicalisation, in Vilvoorde, a small town with a population of 42,000, about 25 per cent of them Muslim, north of Brussels.The town has seen nearly 30 young Muslims leave to join IS in Syria, including a 25-year-old friend of El Boudaati.
However, the introduction of anti-radicalisation measures designed to provide support and assistance to such people had paid dividends, he added.
“The emphasis has been on inclusiveness, youth work and cultivating more cohesion between the communities in Vilvoorde. We have had some success – it is 18 months since anyone from the town left for Syria – so the strategy seems to be working.”
In a question and answer session, both speakers were asked about the possible repercussions of air strikes on Syria following the Paris murders.
In response, El Boudaati said he fears that increased military action will merely serve to help IS and such groups to justify further murderous attacks.”Many of those being recruited by IS are very young and see things in terms of black and white. They will see the air strikes killing their ‘brothers and sisters’ and this will be used to justify attacks on the ‘infidels’ in the West.”
Panellists were also asked why more Muslim people “did not take to the streets” to protest their opposition to IS and similar organisations.
One reason cited was that the Muslim community was generally “not particularly well organised” but that this should not be taken as a sign of indifference to what IS was doing “in the name of Islam.”
The debate was facilitated by the European Foundation for Democracy (EFD), a Brussels-based policy institute, which earlier this year launched a new joint initiative to counter extremism in Europe, called the “Counter Extremism Project Europe.”
By Martin Banks