By Ramon Luis Valcarcel
Vice President of the European Parliament and PP Eurodeputy
The tactics that terrorists are using to cause us pain are losing effectiveness, but the attempts are multiplying. And fear, although we prefer not to admit it to be able to keep moving forward, is being felt in the Berlin street markets, on the Mediterranean beaches and in the most popular concert halls in France and the United Kingdom. Muslims are shouting “That’s not our name,” but it’s no longer enough. Governments are fighting terrorism with more success than failure – such is the case in Spain – at the same time that we politicians are launching ambitious ideas to prevent future attacks. Even so, it’s not always enough. Real will is needed, both on the part of the public representatives and in the Islamic community, to be able to end the barbarism. And this will, if it is to have results, must have a European dimension.
We all agree that jihadist terrorism is a transnational phenomenon and, as such, it can only be combated effectively on a European level. In addition, we know that the focus must be supported by the combined pillars of integration, prevention and decisive action against the killers, real and potential. And today, as occurs after each attack, unfortunately we know something else: that the human factor continues to carry weight at the time that an individual or group decides to kill.
Radicalizers and radicalized, indoctrinators and indoctrinated – the human factor is, in fact, one of the elements to which researchers at the Elcano Royal Institute have turned their attention. Pointing rightly to the two factors that explain radicalization in Spain, they have emphasized that the process develops face to face in the majority of cases, by entering into contact with radicalizing agents, and to a lesser extent via the Internet. In addition, they have designated as the second factor the existence of prior social links with other radicalized individuals, such as fighters who have returned from Syria and Iraq or have been arrested and condemned for terrorism-related activities.
They emphasize that among the main agents of radicalization are religious figures, friends and relatives. Although it’s more difficult from the government perspective to penetrate the emotional links, it is possible – and urgently required – to fill the gaps that exist within the framework regulating the teaching of the Islamic faith.
In the attacks in Catalonia, one hears with great clarity the voice of the Islamic associations themselves, which are demanding the preparation of a national census of imams and the regulation of their training process. Both are tasks that must be dealt with on a priority basis. Doing so in Spain is a first step, but what is truly necessary is to work on that at the European level, unifying criteria and improving information transmission networks. If not, the story of the fake imam who was expelled from Vilvoorde, Belgium, but nevertheless taken in Ripoll, Spain, could repeat itself at any time.
The first task is easy: establishing an exhaustive list of those people who preach in the mosques, especially in the smaller ones and in the places where, without being listed, a non-standardized religion continues. Then, updating that list to the agreed-upon European level may produce disturbing changes in the teaching guidelines or in the relationships of the religious leaders to the different local communities.
The second one is two-pronged: the training of the imams must take place in European territory and must include both theology as well as social and humanistic sciences. This means that the curriculum must be regulated, designed in compliance with educational and religious norms established in the European Union. Also, professional activity that is undertaken once the formative phase is completed must respect the basic principles that govern public life. In consequence, knowledge of and respect for the language, history, culture and the values of common society must be essential conditions for any person who wants to function as an imam within the Union.
And of no lesser importance is the factor of cultural integration. Up to now, a Saudi, Qatari or Moroccan Islam (with an economic inspiration) has tried to permeate and establish itself in many places in Europe. From here on, we must move toward a European Islam, compatible with the values from which emanate the norms that prevail in the 28 Member States, and we must demand it of Muslims of good will themselves thus guaranteeing peaceful coexistence in the coming decades.
If the aphrodisiac of jihadism is the Salafist version of Islam, the vaccine against violent radicalism must be its most integrative and tolerant version. A young man who is seeking his religious identity runs the risk of resorting to the Internet – which is exactly where DAESH spreads its hate propaganda – if he does not find it in the teaching centers or in his family. And it is precisely in the heart of the family where Muslim children and young people can best learn where Islam ends and where destructive extremism begins.
In Europe, a particular type of Islamism (a minority view, but with alarming destructive power) has been springing up that has taken advantage of a lack of regulation to turn into radicalism within certain groups. It is time to lay the groundwork so that any tendency toward this finds itself corralled by a peaceful Islam, a truly European Islam, and therefore respectful of our customs, our values and our model of life in freedom.
The aim of Salafist-inspired terror is to bring us into confrontation with the Muslim members of our community and it must not achieve that. On the contrary, instead of nourishing the social breakdown it is pursuing, we must respond by demanding that our Muslim neighbors cooperate with their society, with the society to which they belong, which is European. Because only by destroying the phenomenon from within, and only by remaining united, both within our communities and within the framework of the European Union, will be able to destroy jihadism.
The Anti-Terrorist Struggle Must Be Extended to the Towns
Europe has been fighting terrorism for decades: ETA, the IRA and so many other sets of initials that mean nothing but death and pain. During the course of their existence, all murderous groups have embraced innovations in their strategies to beat the controls that democratic institutions have been tightening with the aim of protecting the public. However, no groups have done that more quickly than the diaspora of acolytes of DAESH, Al Qaida and the rest of the bloodthirsty Salafist-inspired organizations.
Jihadism has found changes in tactics to be its best weapon. If earlier it was calling for building a global caliphate starting in the subjugated portions of Syria and Iraq, now it has moved – due to the failure of this undertaking – to encouraging violence within the heart of the free and open societies. In the same way, if the deadly plans it is hatching in the cities have been frustrated by the networks of vigilance that are at work in the metropolitan areas, now it is promoting a kind of rural exodus and sending its radicalized agents to plot in those areas where police pressure does not seem to be so strong.
The small municipalities are importing it as much as – or more – than the big cities. For the public administrations it is a real challenge to have to change parameters to the hectic rhythm of jihadist activity, a challenge that is being tackled on the basis of exhaustive analysis by experts. Thanks to their work, the human factor recently has returned to the forefront of the action, above the digital factor. There are no indications, for example, that the Barcelona and Cambrils terrorists became radicalized via the Internet, but it has been proven that they were encouraged by a self-proclaimed imam with whom they frequently met.
Something similar is occurring now with the geographical dimension of the issue. In recent years, efforts against radicalization had focused on the big metropolitan areas, given that the pressing reality had demanded it. But, sadly, the importance of acting in the small municipalities has become a matter of urgency after the attacks in Catalonia, the authors of which became radicalized in a town of just over 10,000 residents.
This requires, therefore, going more deeply into the local scene. Especially after having learned that the percentage of Spanish towns implementing the National Strategic Plan for Fighting Violent Radicalization – which is indispensable for detecting and neutralizing the foci of potential jihadism – is very small. This is surely of concern because, as I argued in my earlier article (“Toward an Islam compatible with European values”), families are the first who can detect radical tendencies and prevent any of their members from embracing the jihadist ideology. Next, the neighbors enter into the picture, the social agents who act on the local level and the “police around the corner.” The need to improve the implementation of anti-terrorist policy in the municipalities that, due to their size, offer the murderers the flexibility they need to beat the controls is consequently – one can imagine – extraordinary.
At the same time, we must understand that the flow of information must not be unidirectional, but rather bidirectional. The local community and, even more so, its Muslim members, must be the ones who inform the security forces of possible signs of radicalization. In addition, the security services have to bring religious and neighborhood associations up to date about the danger of radicals who may try to integrate themselves into them. This was the first thing that the Muslim group in Ripoll demanded after learning of the role of their imam in the August 17 attacks. The relationship must be forged in mutual confidence.
Taking full advantage of all possibilities of cooperation
Because of the speed at which terrorism is evolving today, one priority has been rising above the others. The focus on the anti-terror fight has had to change as quickly as the sponsors of radicalization have done. Within the heart of the European Union, first, monitoring the European fighters who traveled to Syria and Iraq had to be dealt with; and the PNR directive was approved – not without great effort in the European Parliament – which obligates airlines to provide the authorities with data on all passengers who enter and leave the EU. Later, intense efforts were made to block the routes of jihadist financing, as well as the online systems via which the propaganda of DAESH flows.
Much still remains to be done, but what has been achieved is not insignificant. In fact, the Catalonia murderers were not able to acquire firearms precisely because the measures taken on the European level had proven themselves effective. However, today it is necessary to move forward on the harmonization of the standards that have been established in the different countries to detect signs of radicalization because it is of little use that Spain is acting on the basis of certain criteria when France and the United Kingdom are preparing their lists of potential terrorists according to different ones.
In a like manner, we must take advantage of opportunities offered by technological advances to improve coordination within the European Union and among the different levels of public administration, in particular involving local authorities. To fill the gaps, it would not even be necessary to cede sovereignty on national security: it would suffice to unify the criteria within the Schengen Information System.
At the same time, and given that the success of the new controls is accelerating changes in the chameleon-like jihadist cells, we must work in depth on the ability to anticipate. If terrorism can take advantage of small cells, constituted far from the monitoring networks of the large cities, “we must return” to the town. The terrorists will not find paradise in barbarism, but neither will they find refuge in the most out-of-the-way parts of our regions. Not in any of them. Because, working together, in all of them we will prevail.
Disclaimer: This article is part of Agencia EFE’s opinion service, which relies on the contributions of diverse figures, and solely reflects the opinions and points of view of its author.