All the surveillance and intelligence gathering in the world won’t matter if you can’t stop people from becoming terrorists in the first place.
- By Julia IoffeJulia Ioffe is a contributing writer at the New York Times Magazine. She was a senior editor at the New Republic and was the Moscow correspondent for Foreign Policy and the New Yorker from 2009 to 2012.
Edit Schlaffer has been in Brussels this week for the graduation ceremony of one of her Mothers Schools, a network of seminars to train mothers as the first line of defense against radicalization. “We work with mothers because we believe that it is very important to start with those who are closest to the problem,” Schlaffer says. “They are the ones who register all the changes in their children, but usually they aren’t trained and equipped with skills and confidence to react so that it has an impact.” Schlaffer, who runs an NGO called Women Without Borders, has set up Mothers Schools in Kashmir, Indonesia, and Pakistan — everywhere Islamic radicalism has stolen children from their parents. Now she is starting them in Europe, and Brussels is the latest front, teaching mothers in Vilvoorde and Molenbeek how to deal with signs of extremism in their children.
But Tuesday’s graduation ceremony in Brussels was canceled because of the explosions at the city’s airport and the subway station in Maalbeek. The irony of it didn’t escape Schlaffer. “The reason why we traveled here is the prevention of terror,” she says.
But this was just the latest setback she had encountered in Belgium. Her native Austria helps finance the Mothers Schools, but the most she can hope for from the Belgian government is a free meeting space granted by one of its checkerboard municipalities. While many have pointed to the gaps in Belgium’s deeply dysfunctional security and intelligence apparatus, few have noted the country is also far behind its neighbors when it comes to the other end of the counterterrorism stick: prevention.
Daniel Koehler, a German de-radicalization expert whom I caught on the phone after he had just finished a training session with the Dutch police, has set up various programs in Germany, Canada, and the United States to work with families and local police structures to spot signs of radicalization early and reverse them. “In the last two years, many countries have introduced family counseling,” Koehler told me, referring to the kind of family counseling he works on: getting the family involved in pulling their kids out of the world of radicalism and in rebuilding the social networks that radicalization strips people of, replacing it with allegiance to the Islamic State. “Compared with the other field, which is repression and punishment, it is always a very small part of the budget.” But even that is better than the situation in Belgium.
“Belgium is the last European country,” says Koehler. “They’re very late. They’re discussing it, but it’s still in the discussion phase.” He told me that when he travels to conferences that deal with this long-term, preventative approach, “Belgium rarely presents at these conferences. Sometimes, they’re simply not interested and not connected to the international debate.”
“Belgium is behind, yes, but it’s more complicated,” says Schlaffer, pointing to all the gaps between federal and municipal, French and Flemish political structures as obstacles to developing a cohesive, preventative program. “The challenges are immense in Belgium.”
More on that in a minute, but first, why does it matter? Why not buttress the traditional counterterrorism structures, plug the holes in the Belgian security apparatus, and simplify intelligence sharing? That matters, but there are things that Belgium could do — things other countries have been experimenting with for years — that would help stem the flood of terrorists at its source: keeping young people who grow up there out of the kinds of organizations that turn them into fighters in Syria or suicide bombers in Brussels. “There are two basic buckets of activity that Belgium is not up to speed on,” says Matthew Levitt, director of the counterterrorism program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “One is basic counterterrorism, but that only deals with today’s problem but doesn’t get at tomorrow’s problem.” Belgium is not up to speed on the second bucket, the counterterrorism tools that address recruitment and radicalization. “You need a 20-year plan,” he says.
Consider, for example, Yousef Bartho Assidiq. I met Yousef in Oslo, Norway, when I was reporting a story on women whose children had joined the Islamic State. Yousef introduced me to a Norwegian mother whose son had died fighting for the Islamic State in Syria, and Yousef and his partner, Faten Mahdi al-Hussaini, were working to keep her two daughters from also joining the group. They succeeded in keeping the girls at home, and they’ve kept dozens of other young Norwegians from running off to the battlefields of Syria. Their organization, Just Unity, has been around for a year and is working with around 100 people. Yousef, a former radical himself, told me some remarkable stories.
There was the young woman, a medical student from a strict Pakistani family, set on going to Syria. Yousef was able to persuade her to stay home by figuring out the root of her alienation: She felt trapped by her parents’ discipline and by their forcing her to study medicine. He spent hours at their house, arguing with them to let her pursue her dream of studying social work. In the end, he prevailed, and the girl scrapped her plans to go to Syria. After spending hours with a young man, a radical also determined to go to Syria, Yousef zeroed in on his coding skills, all self-taught. He brought him to Microsoft, a partner in Yousef’s organization, which hired and educated the young man, who is now in London for training. Another man “was a full-blown extremist. He was talking ideology like Osama bin Laden,” Yousef told me, “he seemed like an impossible case.” But his plans for going to fight in Syria evaporated as soon as Yousef and the Oslo municipal authorities figured out a way to help him repay his debt — about $80,000 — to a local loan shark. “Once we solved the underlying problem, he left the extremist group right away,” Yousef said. “It was the sole reason he was there.”
If this sounds easy, it isn’t — especially on the group’s tight budget. Yousef, Faten, and their third partner, a survivor of the 2011 massacres committed by nationalist radical Anders Breivik, have just 500,000 kroner ($60,000) at their disposal each year from the Norwegian government to run the organization. The organization’s work is extremely time-intensive. First, there’s the painstaking work of building sufficient trust in Muslim communities and with law enforcement so that they call Yousef and Faten when they encounter troubled youth in the first place. Then there are the demands of the cases themselves. Yousef spent hours with the Pakistani girl’s parents and hours before and after that talking to the girl, teasing out personal information, as Yousef put it, “to get past the shield of ideology.” And she was a relatively easy case. “Most are harder,” Yousef explained. “Most of them are from a life of trouble, and it’s harder to change that. When they look back, life is a lot worse than it is now. For them, it’s not about turning back, but creating something new.” Creating something new that isn’t violent extremism takes hours of intensive one-on-one discussions. It also takes support from the authorities and the private sector to help these troubled youth from broken homes and the criminal world get a fresh start and have it stick. Nor do they know if it will — the organization has been around only for a year.
And Norway, in the European context, is itself a relatively easy case. “The extremist groups can only offer them a place in Syria,” Yousef said. “They’re describing this paradise, but we don’t have that much trouble in Norway, so they really don’t have much leverage.” According to the Soufan Group, a New York-based security consulting firm, Norway has sent only about 81 fighters to Syria compared to Belgium’s 470.
By comparison, Belgium might be as hard as it gets. “The problem is the institutional complexity of Belgium,” says Rik Coolsaet, a counterterrorism specialist at Ghent University. “Counterterrorism is done at a national level. Everything that has to do with jobs, housing, education” — that is, everything that could be used by someone like Yousef to wrench a young person from the grip of a radical group — “is handled only by regional authorities. We must be the sole country on the whole planet where a national government has no influence over policy domains that are given to the regions.” In other words, only the sharp end of the Belgian counterterrorism stick — surveillance, intelligence, raids, and the like — is handled on a national level. “There’s no preventative part because that’s the competence of regional governments, and they only woke up after the first attacks in Paris in January 2015,” Coolsaet explains. I asked Levitt, who had just returned from a research trip to Belgium, what the country’s counterterrorism budget looks like. “You’d have to ask it multiple times,” he told me, because there are various counterterrorism budgets. Coolsaet says, “It’s really a mess.”
What’s more, because the various parts of the checkerboard — regional and municipal, French and Flemish — are not very good at talking to each other, each little checker seems to be doing its own thing, reinventing the wheel every which way. After the shock of the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January 2015, preventative community programs in Belgium sprung up like mushrooms after the rain, Coolsaet says, but they are all doing their work in isolation, and nobody knows what anybody else is doing or if it’s working. “At first, you didn’t have any prevention, and now you have so many that nobody can find their way through,” he explains. Other programs are simply under-staffed and under-funded. Levitt told me the police in Molenbeek had 185 unfilled positions. “When I asked them if they do community policing — which works really well for counterterrorism — they said, well, maybe part time, but not full time,” Levitt recalled. With so many vacancies, they’re having a hard time just doing basic police functions. “It’s a very uphill battle,” Levitt went on. “It’s going to take money, resources. It’s going to take fully staffing entities that they already have.”
There’s another major obstacle: skepticism among experts and in the social sciences about what works — if any of it works at all. “In general, we don’t know what prevention measures are effective,” says Martha Crenshaw, a counterterrorism expert at Stanford University. “You know when you’ve not been successful, but you don’t know when you’ve been successful.” When she looks at her database of terrorist plots, whether successful or attempted, she can’t imagine that these kinds of soft approaches would’ve worked on the perpetrators. And in case proving the cause of a nonevent isn’t hard enough, there is also a split among academics on even how to approach prevention and de-radicalization — which, any social scientist in the field will tell you, are two different things. Do you focus on countering the narrative of radical Islamist ideology? Do you address the isolation and hopelessness of the youth who are enchanted by it? And shouldn’t you have one approach to prevent recidivism for someone who is already involved in radicalism and another to keep at-risk youth from getting involved in the first place?
“To say that the science of this is underdeveloped would be an understatement,” says John Horgan, a psychologist who works on counterterrorism issues at Georgia State University. He bemoans the “confused mess” that is the various overlapping spheres of these programs worldwide, all of which claim to be successful without providing any real evidence of their success. If the expert jury is saying this, then why should governments fund it?
The solution, Horgan says, is to carefully think through and assess what works and what doesn’t in more than a fuzzy, feel-good way. And yet, with each new terrorist attack, this careful, calibrated approach seems to recede further into the future. The public demands a muscular response, and politicians, whose jobs depend on it, rush to give it to them. The softer, longer-term approach is rarely the thing people are clamoring for. “We’re locked into the short-term mentality, and that’s why the quick-fix solutions always rise to the top,” says Horgan.
Schlaffer, of Women Without Borders and the Mothers Schools, understands the concern. “This is the problem when you are active in the preventative sphere: You never know what would’ve happened if you hadn’t implemented this program,” she says. So does Koehler, who has also pulled many a family back from the brink. “It’s really hard to prove that there’s an effect,” he told me. “In theory, you should be able to show that the number of people leaving to fight should decline, but there’s a time lag.”
But there is no denying that the hard approach — surveillance, policing, intelligence gathering — is only a plug in the dike. It does nothing to stem the flow of young men and women to Syria and into the arms of violent, radical organizations. Something must be done on that end, too, lest the dike breaks, or simply because there don’t ever seem to be enough plugs for all the potential leaks. There is also no denying that there is a demand for it in the very communities that feed that flow. Koehler told me that the preventative measure most often applauded by these communities is also the most basic — a hotline. Every time a country introduces one, it’s flooded with calls. The Dutch created a hotline for the Moroccan community; they got more than 100 calls in six months. Since the Germans started one in 2012, they have received more than 4,000, leading to 1,500 counseling cases. “It doesn’t tell you anything about quality of the treatment, but once you start offering a service to these families, they will come,” Koehler says. “There is a huge demand.”
It’s hard to argue that Molenbeek, which has been in the news so much, wouldn’t benefit from something other than raids and arrests. And since we’ve seen how well that’s working, it wouldn’t hurt to try something else, too.
Photo credit: Wathiq Khuzaie/Getty Images