In May 2014, more than a year and a half before the November 2015 Paris attacks and the subsequent March 2016 Brussels bombings, when ISIS was still virtually unknown to the public and only discussed by terrorism experts, a lone gunman opened fire on a Jewish museum in downtown Brussels and killed four people.
The attack was a shock to the quiet European city, but compared to the recent Paris and Brussels attacks, which resulted in 130 and 32 fatalities, respectively, it garnered little global media attention. The perpetrator, a French national who had recently spent a year in Syria and had ties to radical Islamists, was captured, and that was that. Few people, if anyone, predicted that the museum shooting was just the first of many attacks carried out by Western militants recruited by ISIS and trained in Syria.
John Farmer, a Rutgers University law professor and previous senior council for the 9/11 Commission, names the Jewish Museum of Belgium shooting the first official attack by ISIS outside of a government institution. The macabre hallmark plays a large role in an ongoing project at Rutgers that identifies best security practices for vulnerable communities in Europe, the United States, and elsewhere.
“We focused initially two years ago on the situation with Jewish communities in Europe, because they’d been dealing with security issues longer than any other vulnerable community,” Farmer tells Security Management. “They’ve been in Europe for 2,000 years and have survived numerous attempts to, frankly, exterminate them. Our thought was that if there’s any community that knows how to protect itself, it’s the Jewish community.”
However, Farmer explains that he and his team never expected their project to evolve as quickly as it did. They took note of the Jewish museum shooting, but events quickly unraveled from there. “Obviously, we didn’t know when we went into this that Europe would become such a hotbed of terrorist activity, so we’ve had to expand our scope,” he explains. “But we did find a much wider variety of security practices in the Jewish community than I would have expected.”
Following the Paris and Brussels attacks, Farmer, along with partner Paul Goldenberg, decided to use their research to date to create a pilot public-private partnership program in Brussels. Farmer and Goldenberg, CEO of Cardinal Point Strategies and a member of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Advisory Council, were on their third trip to Brussels since the March bombings when they spoke with Security Management.
Goldenberg noted the whirlwind activity and heightened military presence in Brussels. “When people think of Belgium, they think of good chocolate and a nice life,” he says. “The people here have a common theme: I want my kids to go to school safely, I want to go to my house of worship safely, and if I can’t do those two things, that’s a threat to our freedoms and our vulnerable communities.”
Goldenberg explains that one of the biggest challenges in curbing terrorism in Europe is that there just aren’t enough law enforcement resources to keep tabs on suspicious activity around the clock.
Almost 7,000 Westerners have gone to fight in Syria, and there have been about 1,900 militants who have returned from the region. Several countries, including France, Belgium, and Germany, note that they don’t have enough resources to effectively monitor returnees. According to one report, each militant in France placed under surveillance requires 25 agents to maintain round-the-clock monitoring.
The Rutgers project is promoting See Something, Say Something-style training for local businesses and citizens alike. “We’re really concentrating on empowering the public to work collaboratively with police to share information that will lead to a safer environment and society,” he says.
However, many of the sophisticated jihadist networks are thriving in quiet, unsuspecting suburbs such as Molenbeek, where 13 of the 31 people associated with the Paris attacks resided. Neighbors are often reluctant to bring attention to suspicious activity in their community because they don’t want to wrongfully accuse their neighbors and friends. Also, it’s often more natural for communities and law enforcement agencies to focus their energies on suspicious outsiders.
But an enlightening report by nonprofit policy institute New America makes it clear: Europe’s biggest terrorist threat is in the form of young men and women who were born and raised in the Western countries they are attacking. The report, ISIS In the West: The Western Militant Flow to Syria and Iraq, focuses on 604 foreign fighters from 26 Western countries and paints a well-rounded portrait of the Western militants of our time. Australia, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom boast the highest numbers of fighters drawn to the Syrian conflict.
These fighters are young, with an average age of 25, and include “unprecedented” numbers of women: one in seven militants are female. “By contrast, Thomas Hegghammer, in his 2013 study of Western foreign fighters who fought in Bosnia, Somalia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and elsewhere between 1990 and 2010 found that ‘practically all Western jihadists are male,’” the report states.
Also notable is the fact that the women who have left their homes in Western countries for Syria are an average of 22 years old. More than a sixth of militants are teenagers, and more than a third of these are girls. “In 2015, the United Kingdom arrested 16 people under the age of 18 for terrorism-related crimes—a record number,” according to the report.
It’s not a secret that ISIS and other jihadist organizations rely heavily on online communication with potential militants, and it’s highly successful. Farmer notes that the increase in encrypted communication tools has made it difficult, if not impossible, for intelligence officials to track down the identities of those running online recruitment schemes.
“The biggest challenge has been the nature of the threat,” Farmer says. “It evolved so quickly. When we started two years ago, encryption was not really occurring, social media recruiting was, but its effectiveness hadn’t really been exposed as the problem that it is.”
There are upwards of 90,000 ISIS supporter accounts on Twitter, including a number of online recruiters. These recruiters include several American and British citizens. Some of these recruiters operate by reaching out to strangers, and others target acquaintances, friends, or family members.
Family ties are critical to foreign fighters: just under a third of the Western militants studied have a familial connection to jihad. And more than half of militants with these familial ties have a relative who has also left for Syria, the report finds.
Despite the glamorous recruiting tactics, the reality for Western militants is much more grim. Almost half of male foreign fighters and 7 percent of female recruits have been killed in Syria or Iraq because ISIS reportedly places foreign fighters on the front lines and uses them as suicide bombers. ISIS has also executed foreign fighters who sought to return home, New America notes.
“Western European countries face a much greater threat from ISIS than the United States does because militants can draw upon these established jihadist networks that can give rise to more sophisticated and deadly attacks,” the New America report states.
Farmer, Goldenberg, and others participating in the Rutgers project are working closely with local law enforcement officials in Brussels to dismantle these networks. The See Something, Say Something pilot program will be implemented in two disparate communities: Molenbeek, which has a high Muslim population and has become a hotbed for jihadist activity, and the more affluent and ethnically diverse neighborhood of Sablon, where the Jewish Museum of Belgium is located. (Security Management will follow the efforts to forge public-private partnerships in Molenbeek in a future issue.)
“The program is initially focused toward community leaders and business leaders, but the ethos of it will trickle down to the man on the street,” Farmer explains. “You’re going to need the people on the street, the relatives, friends, school principals, teachers—everyone—to watch for suspicious conduct and be willing to share that with the appropriate authorities.”
Goldenberg notes that the focused effort by Rutgers to facilitate partnerships between local law enforcement and private businesses in Europe is necessary because of the autonomy of each member state.
“The European Union was built so there would be one Europe,” Goldenberg explains. “That has its absolute benefits, but I think the counterterrorism measures haven’t matured as quickly as some of the other political, economic, and industrial efforts. Because of the many laws, these are independent countries each with their own set of laws. It makes it much more difficult for Europe because you’re dealing with so many different cultures and sets of laws for the collection of information and intelligence.”
Farmer said that the Rutgers team was initially going to present its research at a EUROPOL summit in June. Instead, the team is continuing to meet with law enforcement and community leaders in Brussels to solidify the pilot program, which Farmer hopes will roll out this summer.
“Our plans changed after the Paris and Brussels attacks,” Farmer says. “The time for summits is over, and the time to actually try to do something is here. We changed our plan, and instead of doing the summit we’re going to do these pilot projects and see if we can make something work. At the end of the day we’re trying to make people safer, and if we can do that, it will have been worth the effort.”