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David Cortright: Reacting to the Brussels Attacks

By Win Without War’s Co-Chair, David Cortright. Originally published on CNBC.

The suicide bombings in Brussels this week, following the bloody attacks in Paris just four months ago, make clear that the counterterrorism policies being pursued against ISIS have not worked. We need smarter and stronger measures to protect against future attacks and address the underlying conditions that give rise to these threats.

Donald Trump has responded in his usual outrageous fashion by calling Brussels a ‘hellhole’ and renewing his call for the use of torture against terrorism suspects — ignoring the fact that law enforcement and military officials have long opposed the use of torture. Security officers know that torture does not work as means of gaining useful intelligence and that its use undermines the ability to prosecute terrorist crimes.

Ted Cruz‘s response was no better. He urged greater efforts to ‘patrol and secure Muslim neighborhoods,’ without suggesting what this means or naming which communities he had in mind. An aggressive response that further stigmatizes Muslim-majority communities in Europe and beyond could deepen the sense of marginalization that some of these communities experience. Islamophobia is not a solution to the problem of growing radicalization in European immigrant communities or to the rise of violent extremism internationally.

Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders responded to the recent attacks by calling on the international community to come together more effectively to fight ISIS, while rejecting the idea of using torture as a means of defeating terrorism and condemning fear-based rhetoric that targets Muslims and immigrants.

It’s obvious that more and better police protection is needed in Europe. Belgian police have failed to develop positive relations and good sources of information in the immigrant neighborhoods where the terrorist suspects live, such as the Molenbeek district of Brussels.

In Belgium, France and other European countries police forces have locked down neighborhoods, searched homes, tapped communications, detained and interrogated suspects and arrested criminals but they have not been able to eliminate terrorist conspiracies.

These areas are isolated and alienated from mainstream society. Policing programs are most effective when they are community based, when police officers have the respect and confidence of local citizens.

When people trust the police they are more willing to share information about troublemakers or threats that exist in their neighborhoods. Tips from local residents and neighbors have been decisive in preventing terrorist attacks in numerous settings around the world. A greater emphasis on community-based policing in Belgium, France and beyond could improve safety and begin to address the underlying feelings of marginalization that can lead to violence.

A community policing approach takes time to develop and requires a policy of engagement and dialogue with the affected communities. It involves a willingness to listen to and address local grievances. It includes conscious efforts to recruit police officers from the affected communities. It means increasing educational programs and other social services that provide opportunities for local residents. Communities that are isolated and alienated from mainstream society can be breeding grounds of extremism. Greater efforts are needed to understand and engage with these communities and help residents feel at home within the larger society.

The violent attacks by ISIS in Brussels come as Europe grapples with the challenge of responding to the flood of mostly Muslim immigrants attempting to enter the continent from the wars in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. The issues of immigration and violent extremism are separate, but they have a connection in the growing sense of desperation and exclusion experienced by people in the affected countries, and similar feelings of marginalization among immigrant populations that live in Muslim-majority communities in Europe.

The failure to resolve problems of terrorism and insurgency in the Middle East and Afghanistan is likely to worsen the danger of violent extremism in Europe. The solution to the threat of terrorism in Europe is linked to the larger problem of trying to overcome violent extremism internationally. As countries take immediate steps to improve policing at home, they also need to work on the longer range problem of ending the wars that are feeding militancy.

The experience of recent years should teach us that the use of force does not work, and could make matters worse. For more than a decade Western nations have bombed and conducted military operations in a growing number of Muslim-majority countries seeking to stamp out the threat from Al Qaida, ISIS and related extremist groups, but the threat keeps growing.

The fact is that no amount of police force or military retaliation can guarantee protection against a small band of determined terrorists willing to sacrifice their lives to commit mass murder. The conditions that give rise to these extreme acts of terror cannot be resolved through forceful means. They are fundamentally political and social in nature and require solutions that address the experience of marginalization and stigmatization that many Muslim immigrants in Europe feel, and that are driving violent extremism in many parts of the world.

The security of Europe is linked to the challenge of building peace in the Middle East and beyond.

Commentary by David Cortright, director of policy studies at the University of Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, within the university’s new Keough School of Global Affairs. Prof. Cortright is the author of “Uniting Against Terror: Cooperative Nonmilitary Responses to the Global Terrorist Threat” (with George A. Lopez), among other titles.

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