Security forces can do an excellent job trying to prevent terrorism, but as long as Europe’s Muslim communities don’t reject radicalism, more and more young people will hear inciting messages and carry out sacrifice attacks.
The September 11 terrorists planned their fatal plot in Hamburg, Germany, right under the local intelligence services’ nose. The Germans drew extensive lessons from that intelligence failure; they became the most skilled country in the West—probably except for Israel—in locating terrorist plans and cells.
The failures uncovered in France and Belgium following the attack on the Bataclan theater do not exist in the German system. Nevertheless, the Germans expected to be hit by a major attack eventually. The terror attack in Berlin did not surprise anyone, and the Germans expect more attacks of this kind.
The terror attack in Berlin, which ISIS claimed responsibility for, doesn’t seem like an act carried out by an organized terror network, but rather as an act of a lone wolf terrorist. It’s too early to say, but this kind of terrorism is reminiscent of similar phenomena we see in the West in general. A young man, the son of immigrants (usually not an immigrant himself), undergoes a quick radicalization process, and with relatively limited cooperation with others he executes a plan that could be very fatal. A truck is an intimidating weapon, as we saw in Nice.
The West, like Israel, is extensively dealing with questions of how to defeat such terrorism. How do we prevent lone terrorists from embarking on a murderous mission, when their level of communication with the outside world is limited, thereby limiting the effectiveness of different monitoring devices? How do we locate radicalization and cut it off?
Clearly, a more public and “online” radicalization process makes it easier for the intelligence agencies to locate it and maybe even intervene before the attack. In the European Union, there is a variety of plans giving teachers, academics and police tools for locating radicalization that could turn fatal. How well is it working? To a limited extent.
The West’s biggest failure hides in comments repeated by US President George W. Bush, followed by President Barack Obama: Islam is not the problem. The problem is terrorism and the radicals leaning on it. These statements were the recommendation of the American security authorities, which pleaded with Bush to make a distinction between “the good” and “the bad” and not turn the entire Muslim world into an enemy. The statement itself is accurate, of course, but it failed to bring along the most effective communal tool against radicalism—social rejection.
For example, how does the West fight racism? It tries (or tried, to be more accurate) to ostracize the racists. It puts them to shame and embarrasses them in their ignorance and hate. Yes, it is wearing out, but the Western norm is that racists are people who should be kept away from the camp, and thereby turned into an insignificant and illegitimate phenomenon.
The ostracism has not worked well in the context of Islamic radicalization. The West tried to convince, its leaders said the right words, but the European Muslims are not rejecting radicalism. Their leaders will condemn it, but they don’t persecute and remove the radicals from their midst. And I don’t mean violent radicalism; it’s very easy to condemn after an attack. There is no rejection of the inciting, inflaming radicals.
The West failed strategically, but the moral failure belongs to many Muslim communities in Europe. The crisis stems from the fact that the “Muslim community” idea is an artificial construction of foreignness. Because what does the Persian-speaking Iranian Shiite Muslim in Germany really have in common with the Turkish- and German-speaking son of the Turkish immigrants and with the Syrian refugee who speaks neither language? There are sub-communities here, and sub-sub communities. They are poor, and they don’t have an agreed upon leadership. When there is no homogenous community, it’s hard to create effective ostracism mechanisms, and on the edges it’s easier for radicalism to spread.
As long as this remains the situation, more and more young people will hear radicalizing messages and carry out sacrifice attacks. The security forces can do an excellent job trying to prevent them (and in Israel it’s being done), but the disease and the medication can only be found in the community.
Nadav Eyal is Channel 10’s (Israel) chief international correspondent.