By Maya Whitney
BRUSSELS – Two questions are ever present in the quest to limit radicalisation: what creates a terrorist, and how to de-escalate a potential terrorist?
While there is no foolproof means for identifying a terrorist in the making, there have been success stories for de-escalating potential terrorists. Similar to parenting, there are conflicting views about approaches to the issue. Some argue for a complete lockdown and jail time while others argue for a more “holistic” community-integration plan to de-radicalise converts to jihadism.
But which is best? For David Ibsen, executive director of the Counter Extremism Project, counter-radicalisation in Europe demands the holistic approach. “We need to train teachers and social workers who are in a position to identify and prevent the next wave of radicalised young people,” he told SECURITY EUROPE.
As for what the EU is doing, he believes it is on the right track. “The Commission’s approach is definitely a good start,” he said, citing the Commission’s Radicalization Awareness Network (RAN).
However, more local community involvement has proven demonstrably useful, with towns and regions stepping up their reach-out to disaffected youth. Some communities in Belgium – the EU country that saw the highest number, proportionally, of Muslim citizens join terrorist groups in Syria and Iraq – have been very successful at deradicalising its at-risk residents. Ibsen pointed to Bart Somers, mayor of Mechelen, who has transformed his city into a role model for integration. Somers attributes Somers’ success to “tough policing and outreach – a strategy the Flemish government implements in its cities”.
During a debate in February here on terror and cities, Shpend Ahmeti, mayor of Pristina, said his city’s anti-terrorism plan strives to shed light on what factors create a terrorist. Ahmeti is no stranger to returning foreign fighters from Syria: as of 2016, 314 Kosovars had joined Syria and, as Kosovo’s largest city, Pristina was a primary source.
One of the tactics deployed by Ahmeti and his administration is to work closely with local “modern” Imams to create outreach to Pristina’s at-risk population. Having educators and community leaders liaise with those at risk should also be part of this strategy, added Ibsen.
Finding the balance between security and personal privacy was also a discussion point during the debate. Emmanuelle Pierrard, head of energy, transport and public sector policy at Nokia Benelux, highlighted the ways Nokia is working with police forces regarding cyber security. For example, some police forces patrol with vehicular cameras equipped with Nokia software that can automatically track cars by visual identification and license plate numbers.
That capability raises obvious questions about the privacy of innocent drivers who unwittingly participate in the tracking activity. Pierrard said data privacy “is a basic principle for Nokia and there is a solution which has this in account”. He explained that data received from passing cars never leaves the premises of the investigating party, typically the police or local law enforcement. The software masks the backgrounds of videos and pictures that are irrelevant to an investigation in an effort to protect personal privacy.
Ahmeti also referred to the issue of personal privacy, noting that Pristina is working with a local company to ensure that the city’s cameras automatically blur everything but license plates as a routine practice. Only when more detailed identification data is needed by law enforcement authorities would the latter be given a key to focus the cameras’ full imagery.
As for citizen protection, Ahmeti took issue with other cities approach to urban planning such as Nice where there are now concrete blocks to prevent future vehicle attacks against crowded public spaces. For Ahmeti, such raw barriers reinforce fear and paranoia in the population, among the effects desired by terrorists. As an alternative, Pristina is hiring local architects to create structures whose design masks their true function while appearing “seamless” with their surroundings.
By contrast, Europe’s cities are intensely conferring with each other to compare approaches about the best ways to protect their public spaces against attack while retaining the look-and-feel of normal, liveable urban environments. Kosovo’s “hidden” designs for protective barriers and methods are just one example. German and Swedish cities are making swift strides in this direction.