Monday

21st Jan 2019

Opinion

Why Europe should avoid terror overreach

  • Welcoming refugees is a strategic demonstration of European (and American) willingness to care for the victims of ISIS terror. (Photo: Freedom House)

Nearly a month after the horrific attacks in Paris, last week’s terrorist shootings in California underscored the very real threat that ISIS-inspired violence poses in Europe and North America.

In the US, calls for refugee bans and Muslim registers reflect panic and political posturing. But Europe, which for long proudly distanced itself from the US “global war on terrorism,” is now following a similar dark path.

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Not surprisingly, France’s President Hollande, backed by Parliament, has led the charge.

He used the language of “war” to introduce a state of emergency authorising the security services to raid and search homes, close bars and theatres, forbid meetings, place people under house arrest and dissolve organisations deemed a threat to “public order.”

French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve, who called for the closure of mosques “where hate is preached,” warned that “it is necessary to move fast and hard.”

The French people agree. Just this past Sunday (6 December), the National Front won a resounding victory in the first-round of regional elections, on the back of anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant rhetoric designed to exploit many voters’ insecurity.

France is not alone. Belgium’s Prime Minister Michel has pressed Parliament to pass tough measures to imprison citizens returning home from fighting in Syria and to broaden law enforcement’s ability to tap phones and detain terrorism suspects for three days without charges. He called for shutting down web sites that advocate Islamic holy war.

The recent discovery that Salah Abdesalam, a former Brussels resident who is the only known survivor among the perpetrators of the Paris attacks, had made two trips to Budapest in the weeks before, will bolster concerns that jihadists are hiding among Syrian refugee flows.

True to form, Hungary’s Prime Minister Orban declared that the “number one job” after Paris is “to defend the borders and to control who is coming in.”

But that is precisely the wrong response. Closing the door on refugees feeds the ISIS narrative that the West callously ignores Muslim suffering.

Welcoming refugees is a strategic demonstration of European (and American) willingness to care for the victims of ISIS terror.

Overreach

We have seen similar overreach before. After the 9/11 attacks, the US put hundreds of men, mostly Muslims, in American jails on immigration charges, suspected of being involved in the attacks. They were not. Muslim communities across the country were alienated by misguided policies of targeted surveillance and ethnic and religious profiling.

For a long time, European officials were reluctant to go down that path. Even after the Charlie Hebdo killings this past January, Prime Minister Valls warned that France suffered from “territorial, social, ethnic apartheid.”

Francois Fillon, former French prime minister, said, “No freedom should be abandoned...I do not support fundamental legislative change.” Otherwise, he said, “we give justification to those coming to fight on our land.”

But the political winds have shifted.

It may be that some of the new measures will yield critical intelligence or halt plots under way – French police have reportedly disrupted one terror group and seized weapons. But in seeking to address the threat of terrorist violence, as they must, European leaders should not forget common sense or the lessons of past experience.

First, many suspects in recent terrorist attacks were not unknown to the authorities. Rather, law enforcement lacked the resources to keep them all under round-the-clock surveillance, or to act in timely fashion on alerts from partner governments.

Adding trained personnel and improving cross-border coordination might contribute more than new legal powers.

Second, the risk of terrorist violence cannot be eradicated; it can and must be minimised. But terrorism preceded the rise of Al Qaeda and the Islamic State, and it will likely outlast them both. Enduring solutions cannot be premised on “emergency” measures that create constitutional exceptions.

Finally, it would be a huge mistake to allow Muslims to be stigmatised.

Stigmatising Muslims

Subjecting large numbers of innocent people to intrusive stops, searches and arrests risks antagonising communities whose support is needed to detect and apprehend violent extremists.

It provides propaganda tools for the very organisations that pose real threats, and may also increase the pool of potential terrorists by exacerbating factors widely identified as root causes of radicalisation, such as a sense of humiliation, exclusion and injustice.

On Friday, Scotland Yard reported a tripling of Islamophobic attacks in London since the Paris attacks, from the previous average of 24 a week to over 70.

Some politicians recognise this. Mark Rutte, the Dutch prime minister, recently stressed the importance of developing positive relations with Muslim communities. Former French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin argues that preventing radicalisation requires "dealing with the fertile soil of exclusion, discrimination and poverty that can be found in some of our urban areas."

And yet, as the past two weeks have again shown, political authorities are drawn to publicly visible tactics even when they have little proven impact.

Expansive laws and policing powers created for counter-terrorism may slip into other fields, such as migration control, organised crime or drug enforcement. Since 9/11, the most common result of many counter-terror actions in the EU has been the detention of undocumented migrants.

Fear and anger, though understandable, are not a sound basis for policy. Terrorism feeds on the despair born of stunted opportunity and inequality. Overreaction, just what terrorists seek to provoke, fosters further division.

Ultimately, the best protection against the ideology of terror is unwavering defence of the rule of law.

James A. Goldston is the executive director of the Open Society Justice Initiative

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