What’s Next for Brussels, Anti-Terrorism Efforts?

Wrong response could lead to more radicalization, experts say

Tuesday’s terrorist attacks in Brussels were likely aimed at eroding public confidence in the government’s ability to protect Belgians and provoking an overreaction against Muslims, says a Duke counterterrorism expert.

The latter could play into Islamic extremists’ hands by pushing moderate Muslims toward supporting and joining ISIS, says Timothy Nichols, executive director of the Counterterrorism and Public Policy Fellowship Program at Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy. “Since ISIS has claimed responsibility for the attack, the government can now refine its investigation to unearth the network that harbored, supported, facilitated and perpetrated the attack,” he says. “If the attack is, in fact, in retaliation for the capture of the suspected Paris attacker, then ISIS has expanded its operating area and bolstered the growing opposition to its violent extremist behavior.”

Nichols, a visiting professor of the practice at Sanford, says the government in Brussels is likely conducting three concurrent activities: -- First, it’s seeking to determine whether further attacks are imminent -- unexploded devices, attacks against casualty centers, etc.

-- Second, authorities are providing “consequence management” activities to attend to the victims and restore basic services.

-- Third, they are trying to determine the perpetrators, methods and motivation for this attack.

“If past is prologue, the leadership in Brussels will have a much more refined understanding of the incident within a week,” says Nichols, who served as an intelligence officer in the Marine Corps and has experience in special operations and counterterrorism.

“With the proliferation of video monitors, the interview of bystanders and the potential for claims of responsibility, these sources of information will soon shed light on the incident, the motive and the actual culprit or culprits to include those who participated in suicide detonations,” he says.

U.S. presidential candidates responded to the attacks with a mix of condemnation and calls for bolstering intelligence sharing, among other suggestions.

Republican hopeful Sen. Ted Cruz said the United States needs to “empower law enforcement to patrol and secure Muslim neighborhoods before they become radicalized.” 

“Research I have been conducting over the past eight years on Muslim-American communities and their relationship with the police shows that Cruz’s proposal is exactly the wrong way to make America safer,” says David Schanzer, an associate professor of the practice at the Sanford School and director of the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security.

“There is no evidence that entire Muslim-American neighborhoods are at risk of radicalizing to violence. And ‘patrolling’ neighborhoods will do nothing to identify the small number of individuals who may be attracted to ISIS and inclined to engage in violence.” 

Instead, Schanzer says research he and colleagues have done shows that police should build trusting relationships with Muslim-Americans so they can work together to combat violent extremism. 

“Police and communities can work together to educate families about preventing extremism, identifying conduct that should be brought to the attention of the police, and getting appropriate help for young people attracted to ISIS’s culture of violence," he says.