What If It Happened Over Here?

What If It Happened Over Here?

by Ruchir Ferrero Sharma - Friday, April 1, 2016 08:03 PM IST
What If It Happened Over Here? Photo Credits-JOHN THYS/AFP/Getty Images
  • In the light of Prime Minister Modi’s visit to Belgium this week, and in the aftermath of last week’s attacks in Brussels,our correspondent reports the causes behind the Brussels attacks with the same exoticised yet patronising tone and clichés that most Western media such as the BBC or NYT use in relation to long form journalism on India. And although the tone may be satirical, the rest is all based on fact and extensive research.

Every time a terrorist attack happens in India, Turkey, Russia, Pakistan, or Nigeria, we have all gotten used to the predictable Western media reports about these stray “explosions”, “blasts”, and “shootings”, perpetrated by gunmen, militants, insurgents, and extremists, where the loss of life is less about individuals whose lives were cut short by senseless violence, and more a headline-defining statistic before embarking on some good old sanctimonious moralising.

As we’ve all slowly come to realise over the years, it’s only a “terrorist attack”, if it happens in the West. But what if the non-Western media paid as much attention to Paris and Brussels as the West’s did to Pathankot and Ankara?

And what if BRICS journalists were as sceptical of the Western governments’ allegations of international terrorism, as the Western media are of investigations in Russia or India, and instead were sent, hardship allowances and outdated stereotypes in tow, as apologists to the fringes of their societies, to diminish the significance of terrorist acts as merely yet another chapter in their violent history?

As Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi arrives in Brussels for an official visit, our specialist on defence, intelligence, and Western hypocrisy, Ruchir Ferrero Sharma found out more.

Looking down from the Royal Palace, the city of Brussels looks like any other teeming Western European capital, with the shining Audis and Mercedes Benzes of Europe’s elite policy-makers caught in stop-start traffic around the headquarters of not only the Belgian state, but also of the European Union, echoing the continent’s own stop-start attempts at creating a multi-ethnic, multilingual federalist project, as seen in established democracies such as India and South Africa.

However, within minutes from the shining city on the hill, all it takes is a wrong turn off the beaten path of the city’s wealthy denizens, and one finds oneself walking around the slums hidden in plain sight right in the centre of Brussels. In contrast to the gleaming images of tourism campaigns we are familiar with and the occasional news-hour claims of economic recovery in the European Union, here, the signs of institutional neglect and a dysfunctional state are clear for all to see.

Mere minutes away from the chattering groups of Chinese and American tourists exploring the narrow streets of the Belgian capital’s exotic medieval core, one is transported into another world. Bleak, grey housing projects stand side-by-side with crumbling pre-war buildings on potholed, treeless streets, while intrepid pedestrians dodge puddles of stagnant rainwater and garbage alike on the footpaths.

The forgotten streets behind the city’s main railway stations and fetid canal are lined with hole-in-the-wall barbershops, car mechanics, side-alley butchers, and multiple optimistically-named “import-export” firms, leaving the visitor with no clue as to the nature of the actual goods being imported or exported. Some scenes, as one walked by a particularly egregious soulless brown high-rise block, feel like a WorldVision ad, with little children of colour playing in the mud in a grassless patch of “playground”, with only bricks as their toys.

One wonders if this is one of the slums where rich Nigerian and Indian teenagers spend their gap years - building schools, teaching English, and most importantly, “finding themselves” and learning to appreciate the privilege they grew up in. That would make them braver than their peers among the privileged classes here, who warn me against visiting these neighbourhoods after dark, owing to high rates of petty crime and violent gangs preying on outsiders around the railway stations and canal. Living in fear and isolation, alienated from an increasingly intolerant state and society, this is home to the Belgian capital’s Muslim minority.

This is all in contrast to the chic cafes and expensive bistros of the wealthy Royal Quarter on the hill overlooking the slums, where the palace, national parliament, and seat of the European Union’s institutions attract not only tourists and provincial student groups from far-flung member states, but also some of the region’s highest-paid bureaucrats, lobbyists, and lawyers. Notorious for being out of touch with the common people and beyond the reach of democratic oversight, these are the enforcers of the European Union’s harsh economic regime, busy imposing not only brutal austerity and neo-colonialism on the EU’s weaker states in the East and South, but also the thuggish whims of the likes of Wolfgang Schaüble, the cruel lieutenant of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and a well-known lackey of German oligarchs.

Schaüble is infamous for not only accepting bribes from arms dealers in his homeland during the crony capitalist orgy that Europe called the 1990s, but also for his brutal crackdown on brave opposition figures in peripheral EU states such as Greece and Portugal last year, silencing dissent against the EU’s undemocratic policies in a way that the “authoritarian” Putins or “intolerant” Modis of the world can only envy.

In a country riven by a bitter history of ethnic tension, sectarian conflict, regional separatism, and policy paralysis caused by rivalries between the country’s two dominant tribes – the Catholic, French-speaking Walloons and the Protestant, Vlaams-speaking Flemish, their constant power struggles have led to one of the weakest regimes and most fragile states in the West, where tribal loyalties and ethno-linguistic backgrounds matter more than ability or efficiency among state institutions and political appointments.

Perhaps all this is familiar to African readers, since Belgium, like much of West and Central Africa, is a country living between artificial borders defined by dominant European powers at a treaty summit in the 19th Century, designed to balance their spheres of influence, with the unfortunate by-product of forcing together local populations belonging to diametrically opposed ethnic groups into a country that they feel less loyalty to than to their traditional communal, ethnic, and religious identities.

Infamously, as separatist ambitions and allegations of corruption came to the fore after tense elections in 2007, communal tensions combined with sharp political differences between Walloon and Flemish parties to prevent formation of a stable governing coalition until 2011. Yet, despite the Washington Post using the term “anarchy” to describe the country and respected political experts such as Tim King declaring Belgium to be Europe’s latest failed state (bringing back not-so-distant memories of Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Macedonia in the past two decades), Belgian and European authorities did not grant election observer status to any neutral bodies from China, India, the African Union, or Mercosur, only those from the OSCE, staffed by the establishment elite of the European states themselves.

In addition, not only is Belgium a country divided by language, ethnicity, and administration, its capital Brussels is a microcosm of this bizarre, fragile, and anarchic state structure, with the city itself divided into a Byzantine maze of 19 administrative subdivisions, each with its own political and governmental institutions, ranging from 19 different municipal councils under 19 different mayors to 6 different police forces, with little incentive to centralise or coordinate, owing to the reluctance of neighbourhood chieftains and bigwigs to relinquish even a fraction of the power and prestige that they have used to build themselves a patron-client relationship among their constituents.

A by-product of these divisions is that it has also left those Belgians without such a tribal allegiance, out in the cold, neglected by the state. This vulnerable minority is mostly concentrated in the capital of Brussels, which is officially bilingual but traditionally a Walloon enclave surrounded on all sides by Flemish-dominated provinces. Combined with almost a decade of economic depression brought on by the European Union’s neo-liberal experiment with a single currency, fiscal austerity, and crony capitalism, which has hit the poorest hardest, these Belgians, many of whom are of the country’s marginalised Muslim community, find themselves voiceless in their own land’s fragmented political system, unable to use their tribal elders to extort favours from the state in the way the Walloons and Flemish have been able to, by manipulating the endemic instability of successive regimes.

Molenbeek, Brussels (Photo credits: THIERRY MONASSE/AFP/Getty Images)
Molenbeek, Brussels (Photo credits: THIERRY MONASSE/AFP/Getty Images)

This leaves them living in virtual ghettoes of poverty, unemployment, and despair, and vulnerable to recruitment by criminal gangs, violent youth militias, and religious extremist groups, who offer youth the hope for power and social prestige that they yearn for – a situation paralleled in the neighbouring country of France, which was shocked out of its complacency last year following two spectacular incidents in Paris, where gunmen from such backgrounds took civilians hostage in two separate incidents, leading to severe casualties.

It is with this background that Brussels last week faced a series of explosions in the city’s busy airport and underground metro system, which left dozens dead and more injured. Although authorities and the local media were quick to blame ‘international terrorists’ such as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), it soon came out that just like in Paris, the perpetrators were eventually discovered to be local criminals drawn from the city’s poverty-stricken ghettoes.

Despite a long history of homegrown terrorism within their borders and funding terrorists in the developing world, European authorities and media find it very easy to externalise the problem by pointing the finger at outside elements, such as Middle Eastern refugees fleeing terrorism in their homelands. And although the menace of radical Islamists from ISIS “invading” Europe disguised as Syrian refugees has been easily deployed as a bugbear by the press and certain politicians, the events of the past 15 months have no doubt forced their security and intelligence agencies to face the growing possibility that home-grown terrorist networks, inspired by groups abroad such as ISIS but comprising European Union nationals, have begun waging war on their own people. As investigators have pointed out, every single one of the Paris gunmen held a European Union passport, as did at least two of the Brussels bombers. In addition, the Parisians sourced their weapons from the very same slums of Brussels as the bombers hailed from.

However, even though the incidents in Paris and Brussels have been claimed by radical Islamist groups, police and intelligence services across Europe have also been uncovering evidence of similar recruitment patterns by ultra-right neo-Nazi groups, who some fear may be beginning to adopt similar tactics. Belgium’s neighbouring state of Germany has been at the forefront of this trend in recent years, with white supremacist terror groups such as the National Socialist Underground (NSU) conducting pipe bomb attacks in Düsseldorf in 2001 and Cologne in 2001 and 2004, and the shooting of 9 immigrants from Greece and Turkey. The group operated with impunity for 6 years despite close surveillance by the intelligence services, leading to allegations of state collaboration, and then a massive scandal when it was revealed that the German domestic intelligence agency had destroyed files connected with the NSU case immediately after their role in the murders became public.

In addition to these terrorist groups, allowed by the state to operate with impunity for years, the recent media demonisation of Syrian refugees (themselves escaping Islamist terrorism in their homeland) has led to the proliferation of many less well-known groups, conducting hundreds of as-yet unsolved arson attacks on asylum centres and refugee dormitories and even car bombings and assassination attempts against pro-refugee politicians in the last 12 months.

In fact, seeing that the NSU conducted its bombings of busy immigrant neighbourhoods in Cologne a solid 15 years before the Belgian bombings, perhaps it would be more accurate to say it is the Islamists who are adopting the tactics of white supremacist terrorists. Similarly, the hostage crises seen in Paris in 2015 by local gunmen had eerie parallels in the hostage situation seen in Norway in 2011 by Anders Behring Breivik, Europe’s most notorious terrorist.

Josh Horgan, Director of the Center for Terrorism and Security Studies at the University of Massachusetts and author of “The Psychology of Terrorism”, points out that today’s policy-makers, media, and public are “so beguiled with ideology, [they] miss the fact that jihadis and neo-Nazis have a lot in common … The similarities of how they get engaged, involved and disengaged in terrorism by far exceed the differences.”

Not only do recruitment efforts to both groups focus on young men from deprived backgrounds and unstable families, but in addition, the phases of radicalisation are remarkably similar, regardless of whether the person is joining a religious extremist group or a neo-Nazi gang, asserts Daniel Koehler, a German expert on deradicalisation based in Berlin. Having originally begun his career working with families which have seen members recruited to neo-Nazi groups, Koehler now also helps people leave jihadist movements.

Terrifying as this may seem to the hapless locals, who are fed a constant barrage of regime-approved, white-washed, and one-sided history about the glorious march to victory of the “shared European values” of liberal democracy during the course of the 20th Century (with little room for academic or ideological dissent, or even Eastern or Southern European experiences and perspectives), an objective glance at Europe’s sad and violent history shows that even this is hardly a new phenomenon.

As any terrorism expert worth his or her salt will tell you, Europe was the birthplace of modern terrorism, as non-state actors from the 19th Century onwards adopted violence as a means of achieving their aims. Ranging from the assassinations of kings, aristocrats, and political figures by anarchist groups seeking to inspire the public to rise up against state authority through the Italian anarchist theorist Carlo Piscane’s concept of “propaganda of the deed”, to bomb attacks by ethno-nationalists like VMRO (Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organisation) or the Irish Republican Army looking to carve independent racially-based nation states out of multi-ethnic entities such as the Ottoman state or the United Kingdom, Europe soon became the world’s hotbed for terrorism.

The continent was also quick to embrace state terrorism, in the hopes to harness this new security tool, as demonstrated by the state-sponsored Freikorps active in Germany after World War I, who hunted down anti-war leaders such as Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, among hundreds of other progressive intellectuals and activists during the post-war chaos.

Terrorism casualties in Western Europe (Source: Washington Post; Global Terrorism Database)
Terrorism casualties in Western Europe (Source: Washington Post; Global Terrorism Database)

The period after the World War II similarly saw the use of state-sponsored terrorism against a generation of student leaders, activists, and trade unionists, as the grown-up children of the Nazi and Fascist generations in Germany and Italy began to question the role of their country’s post-war elite during and before the War. Infamous bombings such as those at Piazza Fontana in Italy, were conducted by far-right terrorist groups funded by the US and Italian governments, but blamed on student activists and trade unionists, culminating in the custodial killing of innocent railway worker Giuseppe Pinelli, when taken in by police for interrogation and the Years of Lead defined by terror and sociopolitical tensions. Similarly, the government and press in West Germany created a frenzy of hatred in the late-1960s leading to a lone-wolf being inspired to assassinate popular student activist Rudi Dutschke in broad daylight on West Berlin’s busiest shopping street.

This led to a new cycle of violence, as leftist youth organised themselves into urban guerrilla militant groups such as the Red Army Faction in Germany and the Red Brigades in Italy, some of the most successful groups of their era, conducting bombings against political enemies in the press, bureaucracy, judiciary, and US army and CIA bases. This saw Europe in the 1970s become infamous as the hotbed of terrorism, as terrorist groups branched out into novel methods such as plane hijackings and embassy hostage takeovers.

This period also saw the sheltering of the world’s most infamous and successful individual terrorist, the Venezuelan-born Carlos the Jackal, living in a glamourous neighbourhood in the Hungarian capital of Budapest and conducting bombing operations in Paris and West Germany out of East Berlin, with the help of the Hungarian and East German intelligence services.

Away from the rich tapestry of domestic terrorism, even overseas, European governments have a long and rich history of attempting to use terrorists abroad as foreign policy tools, acting in unison with their close allies in Washington and Riyadh. The rise of ISIS is only the latest manifestation of Western attempts at regime change abroad, after the success that was arming and financing Osama Bin Laden’s mujahideen in the 1980s.

After decades of hubristic neo-colonialist fantasies of (re)creating spheres of influence in the developing world through their terrorist proxies, these would-be masters of the world now risk getting drawn into the violence themselves, as their chickens come home to roost. Having financed their imperial adventures abroad through harsh economic austerity and a thuggish crony capitalism at home, while crushing progressive alternatives, all they have succeeded in doing is radicalising their own populations and driving the masses into the arms of fascists, neo-Nazis, and Islamists.

Whereas countries like India and Russia have been dealing with Islamist terrorism for decades, Western attempts to insert themselves into counter-terrorism after September 2001 through their bizarrely-named and even more bizarrely-targeted “War on Terror” have only served to strengthen the states sponsoring terrorism, who when not NATO states themselves, are often the West’s closest allies in the Middle East, while failing to address the religious radicalisation and right-wing extremism back home.

In the immediate aftermath of the Brussels explosions, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova pointed out these double standards, saying, “You cannot divide terrorists into ‘good’ and ‘bad’, you cannot support them in one region (the Middle East, the North Caucasus) and think that this terrible disease of the modern world will not come to the other side of the planet.”

Experts such as Marcus Papadopoulos, editor of British magazine Politics First, agree with this assessment: “In Afghanistan in the 1980s, the Americans and the British were supporting the Mujahedeen including Osama bin Laden against the Russians; in the 1990s during the Bosnian civil war, the Americans facilitated the arrival of Mujahedeen fighters into Bosnia to fight the Serbs ... The Americans then invaded Iraq and they turned Iraq into a hotbed of Islamic fundamentalism.”

“Britain and France intervened in Libya and turned that into a failed state. Now it is ruled by various Islamist groups including ISIS. America, Britain and France, and their regional allies … have been supporting Islamist groups in Syria to try and overthrow the Syrian government… We have to analyse Western foreign policy, and by doing so, we will see that the West has brought these terrorist attacks on their very own people.”

He continues by placing the overreaction to incidents such as Paris and Brussels into perspective: “[T]he Syrian people on a daily basis are victims of terrorist attacks. Those terrorists, who are carrying out those attacks against Syrian people up and down the country on a daily basis have been backed by America, Britain, France, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar.”

However, instead of introspecting into the roots of radicalisation in their own foreign policy and socioeconomic structures, most Western policy-makers instead appear obsessed with a primitive and discredited conceptualisation of political violence, through the lens of a “clash of civilisations” between Islam and the West, rather than the result of meddling in the internal affairs of sovereign nations abroad or unemployment and marginalisation among the poor at home.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, speaking shortly before his visit to Brussels, also neatly summed it up last week, saying: “Every year, we spend over 100 billion dollars on securing the world from terrorism, money that should have been spent on building lives of the poor … The fight against terrorism is not a confrontation against any religion. It cannot be. It is not a conflict to be fought only through military, intelligence or diplomatic means.”

A week has passed since the blasts in Brussels, but here in Belgium, there seems to be little sense of responsibility among the ruling elites. Contrary to the practice in healthy democracies, when the responsible Ministers resign their positions for their failure to ensure the safety of their citizens, the Ministers in question merely offered to do so as a publicity stunt, knowing that the fragile nature of the current regime would ensure that the Prime Minister would instruct them to stay in office.

Instead, in such a culture of shameless impunity, the tragedy was pounced upon for finger-pointing and political point-scoring, with the ethnic Walloon mayor of central Brussels blaming Flemish tribal elders in Parliament for a breakdown in law and order after Flemish thugs from the Vlaams-speaking heartland swooped down on Brussels and took over the streets of the capital to vandalise the memorials and disrupt the vigils for the lives lost in the blasts. Far from setting aside their differences to attempt a reform of the sclerotic state that has become a breeding ground for terrorism in Europe, the aftermath of the blasts has only shown to the world how deep state failure runs.

In the immediate aftermath of the Brussels blasts, some sections of the media sought to blame the incident on immigrants and refugees from Africa and the Middle East, and the ‘barbaric’ traditions and practices they bring with them, exemplified by the Islamic State’s fondness for punishing recalcitrant populations with mass killings, rape, and mutilations.

An interesting view, considering that a little over a century ago, it was religious fanatics from Belgium who invaded Africa and created a brutal “Free State” in the Congo, infamous for executing entire villages, forcing young men to kill or rape their own mothers and sisters, and chopping off hands for failure to meet rubber harvest quotas for King Leopold - the Belgian monarch remembered today with a seaside statue surrounded by servile Congolese figures, grateful for “having liberated them from slavery”.

Belgium has every reason to be scared of ISIS; it must be like looking in a mirror.

But they should be more scared of the conditions that have made their capital city such a sink of despair that its own young men are literally dying to kill.

Ruchir Sharma is an international public policy professional in the fields of police reform, counter-terrorism, and climate change. 

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