As happens every year, the world’s leading counterterrorism experts came to Israel about two months ago to participate in the annual World Summit for Counterterrorism at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya. The summit’s speeches and panels were of two types: Those dealing with the intelligence and security tools that can to prevent attacks; and those based on the understanding that, even if it is possible to prevent most Islamist terror attacks in the West using the appropriate tools, some of the attackers will evade security services and succeed in carrying out their murderous plans.
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The efforts of the latter are focused on what has been called “de-radicalization”: How to convince the young Europeans who have adopted the violent Islamist ideology to abandon that path and – even more important – how to prevent them from adopting the path of jihad in the first place.
As Friday’s terror attack in Paris demonstrated, even the French security services – probably the most skilled among the European security services in dealing with the threat of jihad – are light years away from being able to guarantee their citizens’ complete protection from terror. They also highlighted the question that has been disturbing the experts for months and years: How is it possible to prevent terror activities – to increase the efficiency of the European intelligence and security services – without undermining the liberal values that define the continent.
It’s also important to examine these questions in light of the academic and practical experience acquired in programs to de-radicalize young Islamists. Intelligence and security efforts cannot come at the expense of a broad and thorough initiative to understand the reasons motivating young Europeans to adopt the path of jihad. Only once that has been understood can mechanisms be developed to prevent them from adopting the ideology of Islamic State and Al-Qaida in the first place.
The problem with the current political response to the terror attack – defining it as “evil” and promising to fight against ISIS “mercilessly” – is that it diverts the discussion from an in-depth understanding of the reasons for Islamist terror in Europe and, indirectly, from the responsibility of the European leadership for creating a jihadist breeding ground.
In general terms, it can be said that the understanding of the radicalization processes affecting young Europeans is partial at best. Michèle Coninsx, president of Eurojust (an agency for judicial cooperation), who for years has led the legal battle against terror in her homeland, Belgium, told the conference that it is incorrect to talk about a common denominator for all European jihadists, both with regards their origin and the motives that led them to adopt terror.
Despite the difficulties in characterizing the European jihadist, most of the experts agree on several causes that at least accelerate the radicalization - the common denominator of which is that upping the "fight against terror" may actually make them stronger. First, experience of the prison system is a surefire recipe for extremism. It follows that hastening to imprison those who express support for jihadist ideas, and even those who return from fighting in the ranks of ISIS in the Middle East, is likely to turn out to be a mistake.
Second, one of the only effective tools identified to date for dealing with extremism is to work in cooperation with Muslim communities to encourage a moderate interpretation of Islam, on the one hand, and, on the other, to raise warning flags when young people express extremist ideas. Therefore, steps that are interpreted as marking all Muslims as the enemy or as potential dangers will affect the willingness of the Muslim communities to cooperate with the establishment.
Finally, irrespective of whether young people who turn to jihadism grow up in poor or middle-class families, most of the experts agree that their extremism is based on a sense of alienation and an inability to find their place in the surrounding society.
That sense of alienation is not confined to Muslims. It is one of the plagues afflicting young people in the early 21st century, with its effects ranging from the young Americans who shoot their schoolmates to the young Japanese (mainly) who immerse themselves in virtual worlds and refuse to leave their rooms.
The phenomenon may be worldwide, but European society cannot evade its responsibility for the alienation of the young Muslims in its midst. Therefore, while the capabilities of intelligence and security organizations are increased, European societies need to ensure that they are not strengthening the sense of alienation and persecution of the young Muslims in their midst.
Such efforts will not solve the problem of jihadism in Europe, but they are capable of reducing it. The danger of terror will disappear only if significant efforts are invested in solving the issues associated with the integration of Muslim communities into European society. That won’t take a day, or even a year, but the terror attacks in Paris made clear to anyone who didn’t understand until now that the jihadist threat will not disappear anytime soon. It should therefore be clear that the challenge in the coming years is not to prevent attacks before they occur, but to offer the young people who are responsible for them other options before they start following the path of jihad.