Brussels bombings expose Europe’s stark choice between security and freedoms
Zhou Zunyou says the terrorist attacks deepen the challenge Europe faces in ensuring the safety of its people while keeping its society free and open – a test that other nations like China are also grappling with
The bombings in Brussels, the de facto capital of the European Union, bring to mind the November 13 attacks in Paris as well as the terrorist attacks in London in 2005 and Madrid in 2004. Islamic State (IS) has claimed responsibility for the coordinated attacks on Tuesday at Brussels international airport and a subway station, which killed at least 31 people and wounded scores more.
Prior to the Brussels blasts, Belgian authorities had been aware of the imminent danger of terrorist attacks, particularly following the March 18 arrest of Salah Abdeslam, one of the perpetrators of the Paris attacks, in the Molenbeek neighbourhood of Brussels. Still, the carnage happened. The question, then, is why it could not be stopped despite the security measures which the authorities had already taken.
Paris terror attacks suspect Salah Abdeslam captured during raid in Brussels but many questions remain
The Molenbeek neighbourhood is notorious for being a hotbed of Islamic extremism, due to its large, predominantly Muslim population, and a logistical hub for European jihadists. Such Jihadist activities have earned Belgium the unwelcome reputation as the jihadist capital of Europe. Root causes include social problems such as segregation and a high unemployment rate among Muslim communities. Many jobless and marginalised Muslim youth, prone to radicalisation, fall prey to jihadist recruiters.
Second, the terrorist violence must be understood in the wider context of the armed conflicts in the Middle East and the ongoing European migrant crisis caused by them. According to researchers, Belgium has contributed more than 400 fighters to the conflict zones in Syria and Iraq, with the majority coming from Brussels. Compared with other European countries, Belgium is the biggest per capita exporter of foreign fighters to the war-torn areas. It is estimated that around 100 have returned, including a Belgian named Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the alleged ringleader of the November Paris attacks who was killed in a subsequent French police raid.
Third, Belgium is a federal state with several layers of government that impedes the transmission of information between agencies and investigators. Such extreme forms of decentralised government create enormous difficulties for surveillance operations and investigations. To make things worse, the country has a relatively small security apparatus, with some 1,000 employees in total, despite hosting a large number of European and international organisations and companies. This situation apparently makes the country a safe haven for terrorists.
Fourth, the Brussels blasts underscore the vulnerability of “soft targets”, particularly transport networks. Terrorist attacks against such targets are easy to implement, and may lead to heavy casualties and attract much media attention. Open societies depend on the fast flow of people and goods and the freedom of movement is a core element of a Western nation. The open nature of Europe explains why there are too many soft targets to guarantee complete security.
The Brussels explosions offer another pivotal test of the European principle of an open society. Belgium is part of the Schengen region. With its borders wide open, the country is of course unable to prevent dangerous people from entering and leaving. This is why German chancellor Angela Merkel, the de facto leader of the EU, said, “The perpetrators are the enemies of all of the values that Europe stands for today and which we uphold together as members of the European Union.”
Like EU countries, China is also plagued by Islamic terrorism, mostly carried out by its Uygur Muslims in Xinjiang ( 新疆 ). The years since 2008 have seen an escalation of terrorist violence and its spillover to China’s other regions and even to some Southeast Asian countries. The Chinese government is also worried about the phenomenon of foreign fighters, because in recent years many Uygurs have travelled to Turkey and then on to join IS. Reportedly, hundreds of them have been fighting alongside IS.
As an expert in counterterrorism law, I often travel to China to deliver lectures. I am regularly asked what China could learn from the likes of Germany and other nations to promote a more effective fight against terrorism. I usually say China does not need to look to the West because the authorities have far more legal and practical powers in place, of which their Western counterparts may only dream.
Most terrorists with a Belgian connection were born or raised in Europe, where fundamental human rights are well respected and protected. They took advantage of these freedoms to promote their extremist ideology through murderous acts. The Belgian experiences may give the impression that the idea of human rights and the laws aimed at protecting these rights are barriers to counterterrorism efforts. This may even reinforce the Chinese government’s determination to take a tighter grip on the rights of its people, regardless of whether they show signs of radicalisation.
Safeguarding its people is the most fundamental duty of any government. The threat of terrorism is often a tempting reason for governments to redouble efforts to strengthen security. Also, in such times, people are more willing to abandon individual freedoms in exchange for more security. However, people need to know that a society with absolute security does not exist. Even one that completely relinquishes civil liberties cannot be absolutely secure.
After the latest atrocities, Belgian and other European leaders are confronted with the challenge of providing sufficient public security without sacrificing basic freedoms. This is because liberal states and open societies must combat terrorism with one hand tied behind their back. Overreactions will only play into the terrorists’ hands. This is also a lesson that China should remember.
Dr Zhou Zunyou is head of the China section at Germany’s Max Planck Institute for Foreign and International Criminal Law, and the author of Balancing Security and Liberty: Counter-Terrorism Legislation in Germany and China