Over the past year in my native United Kingdom, a record number of children have been arrested for terror offences. Of the 280 people arrested in total, 16 suspects were under the age of 18. While I remain critical of the UK’s ‘Prevent’ strategy, it cannot be denied that the radicalisation of Europe’s Muslims is now happening at such an early age, with recruiters entrepreneurial and vigilant in their efforts like we have never before seen.
I’ve often wondered where we could’ve failed, as parents, as policymakers and as a society, when our young people are more attracted to death cults like Daesh and Al-Qaeda than our progressive European society.
The truth is that terrorist death cults are selling our children the utopian image of a glamorous and exciting life, with free housing, young women, membership of a group that fights for a cause, which gives these young people a sense of identity and belonging. In sum, they are offering them an adventure and a sense of purpose. It has nothing to do with religion or even ideology.
Since becoming the S&D President’s Special Representative to Muslim Communities, I’ve made it one of my top priorities to fight extremism among young European Muslims. Unfortunately, in my conversations with European policymakers and activists following the Paris and Brussels attacks, I’ve come to realise that many are still stuck in the post-9/11 mindset. Some people still believe that solely watching a YouTube video and reading Deash magazines will radicalise young individuals to the level of committing violent acts. And as solutions, they propose more solidarity, better education and integration, saying these shall lead to a terrorism-free Europe. I have to disagree.
“Today’s suicide bombers are university-educated, multilingual and well-travelled”
Today’s suicide bombers are university-educated, multilingual and well-travelled. Many have spent their early youth enjoying a freedom-filled ‘western’ way of life before turning to violence. We must also recognise that many of these young men and women have a criminal and gang past, complicated and sometimes abusive family relationships, often suffer from mental illness, and generally poor integration into society. Prolonged injustices and discrimination at work and in the wider community have left their mark on these young people’s world view. They empathise with injustices that have been committed against vulnerable Muslims around the world, associating these with their own disadvantaged positions in Europe. While these seem like insurmountable challenges, there are very realistic steps we can take now to minimise the threat of terrorism in Europe.
Research has proven the relationship between criminal pasts and gang culture and extremism. One of the three Paris suicide bombers, who owned a bar in Belgium, was also a drug abuser. Many young people drawn to radical Islam share that experience. But Europe has done little in practice to dismantle criminal networks. We need decisive action to break up gangs in vulnerable neighbourhoods across EU member states. We have valuable prior experience at policing that we can use to tackle this problem. It will be difficult, though, as these groups are characterised by having fluid, adaptable structures. We also have to make sure to stop terrorist financing. The European Union has made some important steps in this regard, and that deserves to be praised. A comprehensive Action Plan was adopted to strengthen the fight against terrorist financing, there is an Anti-Money Laundering package aimed at enhancing cooperation between Financial Intelligence Units, and the EU is working with international partners like the United States, with which it signed an agreement on sharing important terror finance tracking data.
We live in the digital era. According to Eurostat, more than 84% of Europe’s population uses the Internet daily. This has revolutionised the way our society is structured and operates, and has enabled extremist networks to move radicalisation from physical gathering places to online. The web has accelerated the speed of radicalisation, as it allows young people to share their ideas, experience validation through ‘likes’ and ‘shares’, and be immediately supported by like-minded individuals. As part of our preventive policing measures, the EU must work more closely with social media companies to pull down harmful content. For example, the British Counter Terrorism Internet Referral Unit has removed more than 50,000 pieces of online content in the last three years. It has been shutting down extremists’ websites and portals more than any other state agency.
“The absence of economic prosperity and social cohesion in Europe has left many young Europeans – Muslims and not – feeling lost”
I believe we need to go a step further. European expert agencies must work with mobile telecommunications companies to block extremists’ access to the Internet. Let’s work to starve the extremists of the publicity they desire, immediately and at the source. But at the same time, our counterterrorism strategy must be smart enough that it does not drive the extremists underground where they will be harder to track down and destroy.
Young Muslims in Europe are experiencing a profound identity crisis. This is the result of legitimate grievances Muslims have in Europe – Islamophobia, hate speech and hate crimes are all on a steady rise, as well as discrimination at work and in schools. The absence of economic prosperity and social cohesion in Europe has left many young Europeans – Muslims and not – feeling lost. What’s more, some counter-radicalisation measures have the potential to do more harm than good. Britain’s ‘Prevent’ strategy, for example, is legitimately being criticised for its overemphasis on surveillance, which some believe functions on undue suspicion about the Muslim community. It thus fuels the belief that the British government discriminates against Muslims, and that could open the door even wider to radicalisation as grievances rise. We as politicians must ensure our policies are balanced and based on sound evidence, so that security doesn’t come at the expense of freedom. If we fail, recruiters will exploit the divisions we will have created in our societies.
When people tell me that Muslims are somehow different – I tell them that Muslims can also make a difference. One of the biggest misconceptions about counterterrorism is that EU and member state bodies can serve as voices of de-radicalisation. The fact is, no government can do this work alone. But governments can support charismatic, young individuals who can serve as role models for young European Muslims. Take Nadiya Hussain, the winner of the BBC’s Great British Bake Off, a popular baking show watched by millions around the world. Nadiya breaks the stereotype of what it means to be a proud Brit, a hijab-wearing Muslim woman, and a European. We need to support such young people, give them a platform to work, act and speak. They should be put at the centre of all our strategies and efforts. After all, they are our future.