Brussels Scorecard: Understanding the Root Causes of Militant Extremism at Home

A Young Professional Summit Participant Perspective on GMF’s Brussels Forum

By: Amanda Sellers

The March 22nd attacks shook Belgium in the hours following the 2016 GMF’s Brussels Forum. Young professionals like me spared no effort, time or phone credit to make sure that our fellow participants had made it home safely. The Brussels Forum App — BFconnect — took on a new function, putting everyone’s contact details at our fingertips in a time of need.

As participants made their way across the Atlantic to GMF’s Brussels Forum in 2017, the murderous attacks in the heart of London were a tragic reminder that terrorism knows no age, color, race or creed.

Earth-shaking events like these have triggered new patterns of interaction on international, domestic and individual levels — both for Brussels citizens and GMF’s Brussels Forum participants from across the globe. The 2016 Forum focused on foresight and the future, whereas the 2017 iteration put an accent on personal agency in the present moment. The 2016 Forum expanded on the need for more initiatives and projects to uproot terrorism, whereas the 2017 Forum narrowed in on viable solutions to deal with this reality. In the same vein, a closer look at the current status of steps taken to prevent violent extremism in Brussels can reveal that ambitions were high. Although the citizens of Brussels have only grazed the surface of addressing our societal needs, we have made significant efforts that can pay dividends for the future.

Watch the full session here.

What has been done?

In Belgium, the range of local initiatives taken to prevent militancy is as wide as the problem is complex. This extends beyond enhanced security measures, military and police presence and heightened surveillance at the airport and other locations. Active discussion, reflection and engagement at the community level have amplified partnerships among public and cultural organizations. Some initiatives undertaken in the past year have included:

· Cross-cultural conversation. Think tanks, networks and non-governmental organizations have proactively brought Brussels inhabitants together to discuss the root causes and sustainable solutions for homegrown militant extremism. For example, Young Professionals in Foreign Policy and the German Marshall Fund have invited speakers from all walks of life to share their experiences and challenges with preventing terrorism in Belgium and the flow of foreign fighters to Syria and Iraq.

· Inter-community micro-projects. Non-profit organizations in Brussels such as Serve the City, l’Olivier 1996 and Maisons d’Espoir have widened their outreach frameworks to accommodate a higher level of need and desire to engage and address sociocultural exclusion. For example, l’Olivier 1996 has provided training sessions to community groups interested in getting involved in interacting with others in Brussels, such as migrants. Maisons d’Espoir pairs volunteers with newly-arrived refugees to help them find housing and integrate in the city.

· Promotion of peace through the arts. From BOZAR Center for Fine Arts to community centers, Brussels cultural institutions have put a spotlight on advocacy. The Maison des Femmes de Schaerbeek organized concerts and an exhibit of photo portraits of Muslim female role models in the city. Kaaitheater, near the canal, invited residents to a “Night of Knowledge” that featured sessions on overcoming inequality and misconceptions on religion and culture in our urban environment.

· Civic entrepreneurship. Brussels tourist agency visit.brussels launched “Mixity” — a series of public cultural events to celebrate diversity in Brussels.

· Digital and urban communication. Shopkeepers and entrepreneurs carried the #madeinbrussels #sprouttobebrussels tags to help Brussels to revitalize its diverse image.

What difference has this made?

The single greatest impact of these efforts has been to produce a deeper collective understanding of the causes of militant extremism and the role that local officials and individual citizens, like us, can play in the solutions. Over the course one year, the following initial outcomes can be observed:

1. Recognition. Dialog and cooperation has afforded us a better collective understanding of the problems we face. Families and friends of terrorist fighters have come forward in larger numbers to tell their stories and seek guidance. Civic leaders have also taken off their law enforcement hats to open up to discussing the complex dilemma that victims and families of fighters face.

2. Practical Help. Thanks to the flexibility, creativity and generosity of community leaders and ordinary citizens, the practical tools to prevent extremism are available to everyone in Brussels. More can still be done to get the word out about these opportunities and eliminate falsely assumed risks on using these resources.

3. Ownership. Initiatives that Brussels residents have taken showcase their resilience and ingenuity. Taking constructive action in the wake of the attacks, these citizens have demonstrated a shared sense of responsibility and ownership of the problem we all face.

What does this mean for the future?

These initiatives represent only a snapshot of the first steps, yet they open up greater possibilities for application in the longer term and at higher level.

In practical terms, to build on this momentum, we can move inclusive, sustainable resilience up a notch. To take a leaf from “The Future of Work” discussion at the 2017 GMF’s Brussels Forum, we can introduce:

· Affordable lifelong education and retraining across socioeconomic groups;
· Professional coaching and peer-to-peer mentorship focused on the millennial generation; and
· Digital platforms to provide real-time, anonymous, human help to families and friends of people susceptible to terrorism.
In addition, U.S. and European officials at the 2017 Brussels Forum pointed to possibilities to start to:
· Activate neighborhood watch mechanisms, by speaking up and taking action at the early signs of danger;
· Bring actors together — not merely to testify in court, but to discuss the impact of ongoing measures and to agree on how to coordinate new initiatives sprouting up in Brussels.

At a conceptual level, these efforts have demonstrated the need to further address the notions of (a) targeting and (b) more ownership in the prevention of extremism.

(a) Targeting. As Swiss author Colonel Jacques Baud points out in his book, Terrorisme: Mensonges Politiques et Strategies Fatales de l’Occident, leaderless jihad stems from anger about one’s personal experience in western society, for example, discrimination and difficulty integrating. We need to adopt a more restrained and measured attitude, he argues, in the aim of denying every terrorist of the grounds to feed their determination. This begins with a more nuanced understanding of the root causes of terrorist ambitions.

Echoes of this argument were heard at the 2017 Brussels Forum. Addressing problems at the local level “is about making us better individuals — who we are in our societies” said Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, Counselor, Center for Strategic International Studies, at the 2017 Brussels Forum. “If we can develop the skill set of critical thinking, we can have dialogue, inclusion, democracy and education,” he said.

Aroosa Khan, Netherlands Labor Party Board Member from Amsterdam, implored Brussels Forum participants to renounce “Islamic” labels of terrorist groups. “Islam means peace,” she evoked during Forum discussions, stressing the intrinsic incompatibility of this concept with extremism. In the same way, the profiling and targeting of particular groups by everyday citizens in Brussels can fuel the fire of exclusion.

(b) Ownership. U.S. Senator John McCain and Belgian Minister of Foreign Affairs Didier Reynders reassured American and European participants at the 2017 Brussels Forum that they were “partnering like never before” to counter Da’esh. In a discussion on “Middle East Disorder” on the final day of the Forum, Emma Sky, Director of the World Fellows Program at Yale University, suggested that western governments’ miscalculated policies are “turning local grievances into sources of instability.”

City Councillor Alex Yip from Birmingham, the hometown of the suspected Westminster attacker, weighed in on the first day of the Forum. He cautioned that, “unless we’re opening up a dialogue on the role of the west in terrorism, everything else is just treating the symptoms.”

On conceptual and practical levels, Da’esh is only as strong as its battle cry against western aggression is to its base. Recognition of our share of ownership of the root causes of terrorism — including our own actions on a global scale — could afford us a valuable degree of humility and credibility in addressing terrorism.

“Not To Promote War, But To Preserve Peace”[1]

Woven into Brussels’ tapestry of cultures, and its 183 recorded nationalities, are the common threads of shared interests and values. To honor the legacy of citizens whose lives were tragically taken on March 22nd 2016, we can and must continue to hold ourselves accountable to this bold vision for the future of our society — both within the Brussels Forum, and throughout the city we call home.

In the words of Walter Russell Mead on day one of the 2017 Brussels Forum, we are experiencing “a serious historical crisis and turning point.” He reminded us that “we will not simply get over it by a couple of firm resolutions and some serious thought. It’s going to take time. It’s going to take experience. It’s going to take a different kind of leadership.”

[1] Not to promote war, but to preserve peace by intelligent and adequate preparation to repel aggression, this institution is founded,” said Secretary of War Elihu Root in his address at the laying of the cornerstone for the Army War College, 21 February 1903.

For more on GMF’s Brussels Forum, check out BrusselsForum.org for all of the session videos, transcripts, blog posts, and more.

The ideas expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.