Nearly a year after the Brussels attacks, the GW Program on Extremism, coordinated an event analyzing The Jihadi Threat in Europe: Insights from Belgium. The goal of the discussion was to promote thoughtful commentary from multiple perspectives on the Belgian approach to countering violent extremism and how such tactics might be implemented elsewhere. The panelists included Professor Thomas Renard from the Egmont Royal Institute for International Relations, Matthew Levitt who worked as an analyst on extremism for both the FBI and Department of State, and Cedric Janssens de Bisthoven, a representative from the Belgian Embassy in the U.S. Throughout the discussion, several themes continued to arise pointing to the reasons for such a large threat in Belgium, and their successes and deficiencies in thwarting the expansion of the terrorist community living within Belgium.
Thomas Renard explained that part of the threat in Belgium comes simply from geographic location. Situated in between Germany and France, Belgium often serves as a stopping point for immigrants and refugees on their way to begin anew, or a final destination for those seeking a new beginning. The problem with this is that these immigrants often come to Belgium expecting a welcoming society filled with opportunity, but instead find a country that lacks integration and is grappling with social discrimination and ethnic prejudice. The jobs these people were hoping to find are not available and the dreams of upward mobility and social satisfaction in the West come to a screeching halt. The lack of integration cannot be fully attributed to Belgium nor the immigrants, yet it is evident that the failure has created societal divisions and tensions surrounding the various ethnicities living independently of one another. This social division plays into the ISIS call for offensive jihad, violence against non-Muslims in regions outside of the caliphate, making the situation very dangerous.
Source: Fact Monster Atlas: Belgium
Belgium’s size contributes greatly to terrorism’s ability to flourish. Recruiters and fighters communicate through a network which is substantially smaller than other large countries, thus eliminating the issue of proximity. Moreover, Belgium has the highest ratio of foreign fighters per capita and lacks the capacity and the facilities necessary to combat the number of foreign fighters re-entering the country. Generally, these fighters are thrown in prison. Yet because Belgium’s prisons are not large enough to contain all of these extremists in solitary confinement, prisons become an incubator for terrorists’ recruitment and plotting. Also contributing to the proliferation of Islamic extremists in Belgium, is the isolated communities which foster the development of homegrown terrorism. Salafism, a radical sect of Islam, is quite pervasive in Belgium and facilitates a growth in the number of radicalized people. Belgium’s strategy to prevent extremism is to develop a new narrative steering Muslims away from radicalization. This plan would include creating a distinct Belgian Islam to help people find solidarity within the Belgian community and cut ties with Saudi Arabia.
Cedric Janssens de Bisthoven told of how Belgian security and CVE policy has undergone many dramatic changes in recent years. Following the Brussel’s terror attacks, European laws on terror acts and arms proliferation have been modified. This reflects the Belgian emphasis on security and prevention of attacks rather than a soft power approach aimed at turning people away from terrorism. Another recent complexity involves the transfer of CVE responsibility from the federal government to regional systems. This modification can lead to problems in cohesion and ability to perform some of the more sophisticated measures carried out by the national government. Huge changes in security procedures. Cedric Janssens de Bisthoven from the Belgian embassy, spoke to the recent technological developments and their implications for the CT effort in Belgium. Telephone companies are now allowed to store metadata, making the hunt for terrorists more efficient. Additionally, there are efforts to make the database of suspected terrorists more accurate and well maintained. This improvement can help in other efforts to keep terrorists from travelling by air and crossing national borders. One area that is relatively cohesive, is the training undergone by police to help them recognize and deal with early signs of terrorism.
Matthew Levitt from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, was eager to emphasize the ways in which Belgian strategies can be implemented in other nations. He cited the example of the terrorism prevention partnership between Columbus, Ohio and cities in Belgium. Additionally, the BRAVE program in Montgomery County, Maryland is adapted from the police training programs used throughout Belgium. Though other nations can take several lessons from the Belgian CVE strategy, it was agreed amongst the panel that in order for Belgium to succeed in its fight against terror, there must be a transnational European force to develop proactive solutions to the influx of foreign fighters and their transit across borders.
Terrorist organizations know no boundaries. This becomes especially evident in the recruitment of children. Deemed “cubs of the caliphate,” child soldiers are integrated into the same military ranks as adults. Their recruitment happens with and without parent involvement, but frequently ends in an untimely death. As seen in Malaysia, ISIS utilizes social media to persuade young children to join their jihadi movement in acts that include suicide bombing missions and targeted attacks. ISIS appeals to the utopian fantasies of young people and offers an escape from Western frustrations, but also from the turmoil of the Middle East, meaning that they have multiple narratives that need to be countered.
One program designed to counter violent extremism is Peer to Peer (P2P). P2P is a partnership supported by the Department of State which seeks to encourage young people to become actively involved in the global CVE effort. P2P is structured as a competition between student groups from universities and colleges around the world. The program’s key strength lies in its flexibility in providing the student groups loose guidelines, but allowing creativity to direct the CVE initiatives. The program partners, EdVenture and Facebook, each supply an initial grant to help initiate the campaigns. All projects are 100% driven and created by passionate students. The winners receive additional grant money to continue their campaign, though all participants are encouraged to develop their campaigns beyond the P2P program. The participants measure the varying success of the outreach by documenting participant actions and noting how many people are drawn to their websites, social media platforms, and other digital medium. Because college students are the ones developing the outreach and media campaigns, their target audiences are generally their peers or adults with whom they can relate as opposed to younger generations who also need greater exposure to CVE messaging. . Where P2P needs further cultivation, is in the appeals and focus on young children in elementary through high schools.
One P2P program did develop a counter terrorism curriculum for use in elementary school classrooms. A team from MSU, created a united campaign encouraging multi-ethnic collaboration within Generation Z to fight terrorism. The team noticed that even young children were susceptible to targeting by extremist groups and responded to the need for CVE education in the classroom. The campaign included lessons, games, and videos which seek to educate youth on the dangers of terrorism and how to be safe online. The brand is known as One95 and has continued to be developed after the initial P2P success. The Center Extremism Project has adopted the One95 brand and is continuing and modifying the brand in addition to the original platforms which are still operational.
Possibly one of the best examples of a campaign aimed at children that counters the alluring images and narratives created by terrorist organizations, is Burka Avenger. Burka Avenger is a Pakistani television program created to direct children away from becoming radical terrorists, by pointing out the hypocrisies and dangers of terrorism. The protagonist is introduced as having suffered through a terrorist attack in which she lost her family—the reason for her current campaign against terrorism. Burka Avenger fights with books, and pens, symbolizing the way that education is the key to combatting terrorism, and the alter ego of the hero is a female school teacher. The terrorists are portrayed as foolish, stupid, and corrupt, and the societal issues mentioned in the show, such as the role of women and attacks on girl’s schools are very blatant. These types of images, along with the cultural norms presented, resonate with the Pakistani community who face these issues every day. To reinforce the importance of all members of society in the CVE effort, the show has a very diverse cast. The overall message of faith and hope are very uplifting and can speak to the larger CVE narrative of simply staying hopeful and not turning to terrorism. The very first episode ends with a powerful message about how education is the best defense against adversity, regardless of whether you are a boy or a girl. To support the messages of the show, there are various Burka Avenger apps, games, and apparel.
Prevention is an important defense measure against terrorism and one of the best ways to implement a prevention strategy, is to protect the young generations from the messaging that will seek to corrupt them. Following in the example of One95 and Burka Avenger, CVE education for children should teach safe practices online and on social media to keep children out of the clutches of violent extremists. Moreover, there should be a greater push to expose children to programs like Burka Avenger and start a dialogue regarding the content. Teachers and parents should lead discussions on the ways in which a young person can avoid being misled, how they can stay safe, and what the alternatives are. By elucidating the dangers and hypocrisies of terrorism like Burka Avenger, youth CVE messaging can counter the false narratives put forth by organizations like ISIS. CVE messaging also needs to follow the example of The Truth anti-smoking campaign which produces and disseminates images created by young people for their peers. The Best Buddies alliance program is perhaps an ideal model for a school based advocacy program that involves students lead campaigns directed at high school students.