South China Morning Post
Comment›Insight & Opinion
Kevin Rafferty says though security is vital, resorting to xenophobia and border closing will not free us from the scourge of terrorist attacks
Terrible stories of mayhem and mass murder dominated news media last week. Islamic terrorists hit the heart of Europe with twin attacks on Brussels, the capital of Belgium and headquarters of the European Union and of the Nato military alliance.
Some commentators say there is no real reason to worry because, statistically, in developed countries you are 400 times more likely to be killed in a car accident than by a terrorist. But terror is, of course, terrifying – that’s the aim. Much more important, Western media are preoccupied with the West and themselves fail to connect the dots and understand that the challenge of the Islamic threat is global. Islamic terrorists targeted Christians in their attack on a park in Lahore, Pakistan, on Sunday and killed at least 70 people. Let’s not forget that terrorist attacks have become part of daily life in Afghanistan and large parts of the Middle East, especially Syria, with women and children, teachers, people with a different view of God or even of Islam being killed or maimed.
Brussels was known to be a terrorist tinder-keg waiting for a spark. There was an abundance of recent warnings of impending atrocity. In June, Turkey detained and deported one of the two brother bombers in last week’s suicide attack on Brussels airport. Turkey warned the Belgian authorities that he was a “foreign terrorist fighter”. That should have set alarm bells ringing. Clearly, it did not. Nor did links of the Paris terrorists of November to a base in the Brussels suburb of Molenbeek.
It took months before Paris attacker Salah Abdeslam was finally picked up in Brussels on March 18. Why, with so many fingers pointing at the Belgian terrorist bases, didn’t other European authorities and Interpol lend a hand?
The danger now is of knee-jerk reactions driven by narrow-minded politicians. There will be calls for smothering new security checks at airports and subway stations, for Big Brother to be omnipresent, and for all immigrants to be banned.
Proper security is vital, but there is the danger of a whack-a-mole game. For each new check, at subway entrances, airport perimeters, before check-in counters, for liquids, gels, bombs in shoes and batteries, terrorists will jump ahead to find new targets. Being checked five times at an airport and made to collect stamps on a boarding card, makes me feel less, not more, safe. Moreover, it will always be a thankless task. Security authorities have to get things right every day, 365 days a year, 24 hours a day; but terrorists have to be lucky just once in perpetrating their threat.
Better intelligence is the key. This means using intelligence intelligently, and being able to connect the dots, as Belgium failed, as the US failed before the September 11, 2001 attacks. There is no point in adding more and more security cameras, if they are only used to identify terrorists after they have done their damage.
Cameras cannot penetrate into the minds and hearts of terrorists as they plan their atrocities, and Belgian police obviously had no insights into Muslim lives in Molenbeek.
Right-wing politicians, from Donald Trump to Marine Le Pen and Nigel Farage, have called for an end to immigration or Muslim immigration. But it is too late for that. The suicide bombers in Paris and Brussels had French and Belgian citizenship. Self-styled Islamic State has recruited freely from the US, the UK, Australia and other countries, and some of them were baptised as Christians.
In a globalising world, only an isolated island like Australia can get away with closing the door to new migrants. This lesson should be clear to Europe struggling to cope with refugees fleeing from Syria.
The French Revolution showed that it is not the poorest and most downtrodden who rise up: they are too dejected trying to survive to raise their spirits to the hope of revolt. It is those who have tasted a better life, like the half-educated and underemployed second-generation young European citizens of marginalised Muslim areas of the EU.
Dreams of a global world are still a long way off. A first step would be more honesty in facing the issues, and understanding the importance of tolerance.
Kevin Rafferty is a political commentator