Time for a New Tack on Terror in Europe
How to fix what ails our allies' terror policies.
The tragic terrorist bombings in Brussels on Tuesday serve as a reminder that while many in the West would prefer to focus on domestic affairs, their enemies will not grant them that luxury and are determined to bring the fight to them. The metastasizing terrorist threat in Europe and the continuing crisis in the Middle East suggest that the transatlantic allies have got the balance wrong. America's hands-off approach to the war in Syria has helped enable Islamic State terrorism to strike the heart of Europe. It has also unwittingly added momentum to a human wave of refugees that threatens to overwhelm America's most important ally in world affairs. It is time for a new, forward approach that leverages the considerable strengths of the West while shrinking the space for terrorists to operate and for populists to whip up public hysteria.
The tragic terrorist bombings in Brussels on Tuesday serve as a reminder that while many in the West would prefer to focus on domestic affairs, their enemies will not grant them that luxury and are determined to bring the fight to them. The metastasizing terrorist threat in Europe and the continuing crisis in the Middle East suggest that the transatlantic allies have got the balance wrong. America’s hands-off approach to the war in Syria has helped enable Islamic State terrorism to strike the heart of Europe. It has also unwittingly added momentum to a human wave of refugees that threatens to overwhelm America’s most important ally in world affairs. It is time for a new, forward approach that leverages the considerable strengths of the West while shrinking the space for terrorists to operate and for populists to whip up public hysteria.
First, counterterrorism must start at the source. What some see as George W. Bush’s overreach in the Middle East has led to Barack Obama’s underreach — including the total withdrawal of American forces from Iraq and fatalistic, do-nothing policies on Syria and Libya, against the advice not only of Republican leaders but of Democrats like Hillary Clinton. This approach has allowed jihadists to build vast new sanctuaries in the greater Middle East from which to launch attacks on the West.
In turn, the battlefield momentum and propaganda of IS has helped radicalize a generation of Arab immigrants in Europe, seeding home-grown terror. The first step in efforts to reverse it should be to demonstrably defeat IS on the Syrian and Iraqi battlefields through military force — and to end the West’s hands-off approach in Libya, where a successful military intervention was followed by neglect. Western leaders could learn something from President Vladimir Putin’s decisive military intervention in support of Russian interests in Syria.
In response to the Syrian conflict, which has produced a world with more refugees than at any time since 1945, Europeans have been focused on absorbing migrant flows from the Middle East. The generosity of Germans and Swedes, in particular, in welcoming huge numbers of refugees has been inspiring. But in dealing with the demand side of the equation through refugee resettlement, Europe has neglected the supply side: the bloodshed in the Middle East generated by Syrian ruler Bashar al-Assad’s war against his own people, which helped spawn and empower IS.
Both European and American governments have been strangely passive in tackling the problem at its source. Doing so would require creating diplomatic leverage through the credible threat and use of military force to end Syria’s civil war and bring about a transition away from the Assad regime. Until then, desperate refugees will keep coming, even if the recent deal between the European Union and Turkey means that not all of them will make it to Europe.
Second, although Eurocrats cooperate systematically to integrate European markets and regulatory regimes, the Brussels bombings highlight the limits to such cooperation among European security services, leaving big gaps in intelligence that allow bad actors to operate with impunity. French officials have lamented weak cooperation with their Belgian counterparts since the November 2015 attacks in Paris, including the capture on March 18 in Brussels of one of the alleged perpetrators. European unity often seems to stop at national borders when it comes to intelligence-sharing and counterterror operations. Washington cooperates more closely with European capitals on the terror threat than many European governments do with each other. This must change.
As a security institution that actually works, NATO could do more, not only to deter threats from outside Europe but to coordinate defense from within. In this time of crisis on the continent, EU governments’ hollowing out of their military budgets and Donald Trump’s call for America to step back from leadership of the alliance look equally misguided.
Third, both European and U.S. government and corporate leaders must pursue a more balanced approach to privacy. EU officials oversee strict online privacy standards that penalize U.S. companies like Google; at the same time they evidently do not employ the same gusto to pursue terrorists reliant on digital technologies. Inexplicably, European countries still do not fully share airline passenger information among themselves, and they only agreed to do so with the United States very recently. European nations have built comprehensive and generous social safety nets. But they cannot keep their people safe as long as they do not give equal weight to deploying security safeguards against enemies at home and abroad.
This is not simply a European problem. In the United States, Apple refuses to share with the government codes that would unlock the iPhones of the terrorists who attacked San Bernardino last December. Voters on both sides of the Atlantic are unlikely to support such strict approaches to privacy when there is blood in the streets. Moreover, modern consumers appear unperturbed about sharing vast amounts of highly personal information with the corporations that run their Internet search engines, social media accounts, and mobile phone platforms. Why should we assume they will not trust their own governments when public safety is on the line?
Fourth, the failure to tackle the internal security threat to Europe risks undermining regional unity and could even lead to a fracturing of the EU. Already, border controls to stem migrant flows threaten the free movement of people — a principle that is enshrined in European law. Alarmingly, British voters look at the EU’s fumbling of security, migration, and integration issues, and increasingly support “Brexit.” Yet leaving the EU would make it harder, not easier, for London to cooperate with continental allies on security. Britain already controls its own borders and is not part of the Schengen zone in which citizens and visitors can move freely across most EU countries. The idea that Britain will enjoy greater security by decoupling from the continent has been proven wrong by everyone from Louis XIV to Hitler.
Fifth, hapless governments on both sides of the Atlantic only embolden rising political forces on the fringes that call for radical solutions. When establishment politicians in the West give the impression of business as usual, they empower populists like Trump and Marine Le Pen in France, who lambaste them for not protecting their publics. Populists on the right vow to do a better job, including through counterproductive measures like banning Muslim immigration or torturing terrorist suspects, which would only further radicalize domestic constituencies that are their countries’ first defense against extremism. Meanwhile, populists on the left like Bernard Sanders in America and Jeremy Corbyn in Britain sound a siren call for protectionist trade barriers. These would undermine the dynamic prosperity that has proven a powerful spur to integration and antidote to home-grown radicalization.
The United States and Europe together need to reorient around these dangers. A forward policy in the Middle East could change the equation that is producing both refugee flows and domestic radicalization in Europe. Internationalists on both sides of the Atlantic must remind voting publics that it is their open societies that terrorists seek to damage. It is imperative to defend and protect them all the more vigorously, rather than pursuing policies of intolerance, autarky, or fecklessness that could fatally weaken them.
A version of this essay appears in the Nikkei Asian Review.
KENZO TRIBOUILLARD/AFP/Getty Images
Daniel Twining is the president of the International Republican Institute and a former counselor at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. Twitter: @DCTwining
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