Nicholas Mazzei: There is no short cut to ending the proliferation of home-grown terror

It is easy during periods of high stress, shocking news coverage and headlines such as “Like the apocalypse: how the terror unfolded” for us to overreact. Now we know the bombers in Brussels were by two Belgian nationals, it’s worth taking a moment to reflect on the situation.

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What we must always remember about terrorism is that it intends to provoke a reaction. The more fearful and aggressive the reaction, the more successful the terrorist attacks are. Terrorism after all, is an attempt to bring about a political goal primarily through the use of terror as a first order effect. So in layman’s terms, the murder of innocent people is an engine to cause fear and the deaths of people are a by-product of that generation of fear. It is why it is key to the maintenance of the western way of life that we react in an appropriate manner. Not through generation of more fear, but through balance and actions which remove the cause of terrorism in our own countries and ensuring we tackle terrorism in other states such as Syria.

I wrote in a previous article that bombing targets in Syria won’t stop terrorist attacks here, and I stick to that. The bombers are after all from Europe and bombing Syria will simply create more refugees and more Islamic State sympathisers. As with the Paris bombings, people have sadly reacted to the Brussels bombings with outcries of “bomb Syria!” and “ban refugees!”. Katie Hopkins, someone I often agree with, very wrongly said “Every one of you who said refugees are welcome, if you said 'let them in'. You are responsible for Brussels. And you still can't see.” But the bombers weren’t refugees, they were Belgian nationals. Much like the Paris bombings and the London 7/7 bombings, the problem is domestic and yet we in Britain still cannot see the issue.

It is important to understand what Islamic State is, in terms of the way it operates as a group. Since al-Qaeda became a household name as a result of the September 11th attacks, terrorist groups have begun to ‘franchise’ their identity. By building a media profile and an attack signature, people from around the world can cause terrorist attacks and call themselves ‘al-Qaeda’, whether or not they have been funded or in contact with the central organisation. This franchising is effective for terror groups who want to have the most shocking impact, to cause the most terror.

Islamic State has taken a hybrid approach of lessons from the terrorist al-Qaeda and the insurgent Taleban in Afghanistan. While simultaneously holding ground, replacing political structures and organising around a territory (an insurgent method of politically replacing their opposition), they have also inspired terrorism around the world through media and franchise of their shocking methods. The more media attention and the more shocking the activity, the more disenfranchised young men and women (though it is worth saying, it’s almost all men) will sign up to commit atrocities. The two Belgians responsible for these crimes may never have ever spoken to someone from Islamic State, but by buying a flag online and committing an act in their name, they are as part of Islamic State as much as Jihadi John.

Phillip Zimbardo, the scientist famous for the Stanford Prison experiment, quoted an often-said remark that bad actions are “down to a few bad apples”. Zimbardo shows through his experiment, that it’s not a few bad people but actually a negative environment, that the “bad barrel is the cause of the bad apples”. The very fact that we blame organisations outside of Europe for terrorist attacks by Belgians, French and British people should show us that in certain sections of our society, the barrel is rotting the apples. This should be far more shocking to people than the idea of attacks from outside of our countries, but yet we still react by blaming refugees and bombing other countries.

I was once quoted in an insurgency article as saying that “effective counter insurgency is essentially heavily armed social work”. Effective counter terrorism and ending these corrupting environments in Europe is very much reliant on the same tactic, of rooting out those who corrupt others (abroad if necessary) and ensuring adequate social support to improve these environments. People don’t like this answer, because they view it as ‘soft, fluffy and not aggressive enough’. My answer to those people is that they avoid this option because it is not only much harder work, but also takes a longer investment. There’s no short cut to ending the proliferation of home grown terror.

Of course I could also say that anyone who thinks it is soft and fluffy, have probably never seen this kind of ‘armed social work up close’. I can assure you, it’s definitely not soft and fluffy.


Nicholas is a Conservative activist who has worked and lectured in counter-terrorism. His is also an ex-army officer, having served in the political arena of Afghanistan and Northern Ireland.

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