Understanding the Brussels Attacks

“What we feared has happened, we were hit by blind attacks.” These were the words of Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel following the March 22nd terrorist attacks on Brusssels’ Zaventem airport and Maelbeek metro station. These attacks, carried out in part by extremists linked to the network which carried out the November Paris attacks, came only days after the “mastermind” of the latter attacks, Salah Abdeslam, was captured by Brussels police.

In the days since Brussels was attacked, much ink has been spilled analyzing the events from a variety of angles. Of course, people throughout the west and around the world have mourned for Belgium, and the victims—representing 40 countries. Monuments in France, Germany, the United States were illuminated in the red, yellow, and black of the Belgian flag. While acts of sympathy are laudable and the world can probably always use more concern for our sister human beings—the outpouring of grief following recent acts of violence in Europe leaves many others around the world wondering why they have not received similar treatment. Turkey, which experienced terrorist bombings on March 13th in Ankara and March 19th in Istanbul, notably lacked hashtags, headlines, and international displays of solidarity.

Another conversation that has emerged, largely absent in the wake of Paris, has questioned whether Belgium has done enough to combat the sources of terrorism and the radicalization of its Muslim community. Belgium’s relatively small security and intelligence apparatus has been criticized for not being proportionate to its foreign fighter problem. The disenfranchisement of Muslim communities within Belgium has also been highlighted.

Finally, an unfortunate, but increasingly inescapable reaction to these events has been a scapegoating of Syrian refugees by Trumpians in the United States and right-wing Eurosceptics in the EU. This occurred despite the fact that the attackers identified were French and Belgian nationals. In the face of confusion and misleading public narratives, surely the academy has some guidance to offer? Below I have compiled a selection of ISQ articles buttressed with a few from ISR. These articles all address different aspects of topics called to mind by the Brussels attacks. I have divided them into the somewhat artificial subcategories of “terrorism,” “identity, nationalism, and the European Union,” and “migrants and refugees.”

Terrorism

            The growth, evolution, and expanded reach of ISIS’s violence have called into question much of the common-sense notions for understanding and combatting terrorism. As world leaders pledge to eradicate or destroy ISIS, we may be aided by Brian Phillips (2014) article on what accounts for variation in terrorist networks’ longevity.  Furthermore, the strength of ISIS’s recruiting may reaffirm the need to disaggregate terrorist profiles as called for by Perliger, Koehler-Derrick, and Pedahzur (2016).

            In a larger sense, the continued prevalence of terror attacks requires a sustained and perhaps increased commitment to academic study aimed at understanding and ultimately reducing or eliminating this phenomenon. Seeking to methodologically improve research within the field of study, Joe Young and Michael Findley (2011) surveyed a broad range of terrorism literature and called for a greater distinction between domestic and transnational terrorism, as well as an increased use of data containing directed dyads. Examining the impact of unipolarity and globalization on the role of political violence, Damon Coletta (2007) calls for a shift within security studies toward “comparative defense.”

Identity, Nationalism, and European Identity

            With the backlash against German Chancellor Merkel’s refugee policy, increasing right-wing movements across the continent, and the prospects of a looming Brexit, European identity faces major challenges. Such challenges tend to be exacerbated by attacks like those in Brussels. For what it is worth, the pages of ISQ have frequently addressed issues like these.

            The status of citizenship for minorities in Europe is raised not only by the refugee crisis, but by the source of violent extremists behind attacks in Paris and Brussels. Jeffrey Checkel’s (1999) constructivist account of the role of international norms in shaping European national identity may be instructive as we continue to grapple with this issue.

            Related to the issue of national identity, Patricia Goff (2000) looks at a phenomenon recently derided by Eurosceptics, the erosion of borders. Contrary to the commonly held view, Goff finds that states are actually innovative in providing new meaning to these boundaries. While this may not be helpful for the people trying to figure out how to control the flow of foreign fighters, it does speak to deeper questions of symbolic meaning that will surely continue to be of importance as the European project is continuously debated. The issue of “Europeanization” is also directly addressed by Subotic (2011).

Migrants, Refugees, and Assimilation

            At first I was averse to including this section, due to the risk it would reinforce the idea that refugees have been responsible for terrorist attacks in Europe. Ultimately, I chose to with faith in the idea that distributing our scholarly knowledge on migration and refugees will dispel ignorance rather than fueling flames of suspicion and xenophobia.

            In 2005, Eric Neumayer tackled directly the issue of asylum migration to Europe. While certainly the issue has changed in the last 11 years, this provides some needed historical context for the long-term problems Europe must face in this regard. His argument about the need to address issues in the country of origin parallels what many policymakers today are saying about the crisis in Syria.

            Sean Richey’s (2010) work on immigration and anti-assimilation attitudes in Japan is ripe for application to the European context. Richey finds that favoring assimilation is actually correlated with increased support for immigration and more favorably beliefs about immigrants’ rights. This dispels simple notions of xenophobia, and while it may not map directly onto the issues facing Europe, it could provide insights for how to balance multiculturalism, some form of assimilation, and security.

            The issue of forced migration may be the scholarly topic with the most pertinence to the situation of Syrian refugees. While it may not have motivated the research, Prakash Adhikari’s (2012) take on the complexity of motivations behind decisions to flee a country serves in part to humanize and guard against the essentialization of migrants into a hostile category of people.

            As European nations continue to weigh more open immigration policies, we do well to keep in mind Kyung Joon Han’s (2015) findings that it is not a simple matter of left v. right that influences these policies, but the specific split of the working class/manual laborers can play a decisive role.

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