The fight against Jihadism is, today, the "main threat" facing Europe but there are no "quick fixes" to eradicate the problem, the conference heard.
Facing an "apocalyptic" challenge, the only answer is to work with the Muslim communities rather than against them, insists senior European Commission official Olivier Luyckx.
Luyckx, Head of the Terrorism and Crisis Management Unit in the Commission's Migration and Home Affairs directorate, was partly responding to the widely condemned call by US presidential candidate Donald Trump for Muslims to be barred entry to America.
With Belgium recently subject to lockdown in the wake of the events in Paris, Luyckx also cautioned against "over reacting" to recent terrorist attacks carried out in the name of Islam, saying: "We must keep our response proportionate."
The debate, 'Picking up the pieces after Paris', was organized by the European Foundation for Democracy, a Brussels-based policy institute, the European Policy Centre and the Counter Extremism Project, in conjunction with the King Baudouin Foundation.
Opening the "very timely" discussion, Amanda Paul, of the European Policy Centre, said the Paris attacks were another reminder of the "unprecedented" challenge posed by Jihadi extremists.
The exchange of views, she explained, sought to discuss the root causes of the problem and possible solutions.
In her opening remarks, Zainab Al-Suwaij, herself a Muslim and co-founder of the American Islamic Congress (AIC), said that events such as Paris, and further back, 9/11, served as "reminders" that the problems posed by radicalisation and extremism were closer to home than many realised. Islamist ideology is behind all the terrorism incidents that we have seen in Europe, America and all over the Islamic world she said and Muslims are the first victims of this ideology.
She added that it was critical to remember that we are not at war with Islam but with the radical, extremist ideology of political Islam. Despite the best efforts of ISIS to present it as such, there is no clash of civilisations between Islam and the rest of the world she said.
She explained how the AIC works on some 75 college campuses in the US where it seeks to raise awareness of the phenomenon of Islamic radicalisation.
"These people kill and destroy simply because you do not agree with their ideology and the only solution is to unite against it, irrespective of background, religion and ethnicity."
In his opening remarks, Pieter van Ostaeyen, a Belgian-based independent analyst on Jihadi movements in Syria and Iraq, said coalition air strikes on Syria was a contributory factor in the recent escalation in violence by so-called Islamic State.
"Attacking Europe had not previously been on their agenda but the bombing was like an invitation for them to attack us," he noted.
Van Ostaeyen, who has studied the issue in Belgium, said that 550 Belgians, a "huge group," were known to have left to join IS in Syria and Iraq, adding that 79 of these had been killed and 120 had returned to Belgium.
Much of the recruitment had been done in Belgium itself via social media, such as Facebook, and, in some cases, under the guise of "humanitarian aid". He added that Sharia4Belgium played a key role in recruitment of foreign fighters for Syria.
He also pointed out that "only a small part" of the infamous IS media output pivoted towards violent videos such as beheadings, adding that much of the group's propaganda machine highlighted the "fantastic life" supposedly offered by Islamic State.
"Of course," said Van Ostaeyen, "a lot of this is a cover. Life within IS is hellish." He added that income of IS is in reality based on mafia-style taxation. Oil income is just 20% of their overall revenue stream, he said.
Another keynote speaker, Magnus Norell, a senior policy advisor with the European Foundation for Democracy, agreed with Van Ostaeyen that Western foreign policy had, in part, contributed to the current situation, describing it as partly "self inflicted".
Norell told the debate: "Had the West intervened earlier (in the Syrian conflict) we probably would have suffered a lot less."
He distances himself from those who suggest that social exclusion, poverty and unemployment were the main driving force for so many young Muslim men, and women, leaving Europe to fight in Syria.
"People are joining because they want to. It is their choice. Trying to say it is just down to social and economic reasons is a dangerous route to go down," he said, pointing out that both Belgium and his native Sweden, two rich countries with established social systems were among those with, pro rata, the highest number of foreign fighters in Syria. This was backed up by Luyckx who added that social justice is never used by ISIS in their recruitment propaganda.
While IS poses a "more brutal version" than even al Qaeda, the idea of the Islamic caliphate is not new, he said, adding that "the writing has been on the wall for decades".
Norell believes that currently a "civil war for ideas" is taking place within the whole Islamic community but argues that, with coalition bombing in Syria and Iraq intensified after the UK parliament voted to extend air strikes, it will be "impossible to bomb an ideology into oblivion".
Outlining the counter-terrorism measures being taken by the Commission, Luyckx joined Norell in offering a rather pessimistic outlook, warning: "The fight against Islamic extremism is the biggest challenge Europe faces and there are no quick fixes."
Warning that other atrocities are inevitable, he said: "It is not a question of if, but when and how."
In a reference to the comments by Donald Trump, currently the leading Republican candidate in the US election campaign, Luyckx emphasized the need to "work with Muslim communities, not against them" and pointed out that 99% of the estimated 8m Muslims in Europe chose to do so "because they want to live in a democracy."
However, he voiced concern about the continuing rise of far right groups in some parts of Europe, most recently witnessed with the success at the weekend of Front National in French regional elections, saying, "We are seeing a vicious circle of violence and extremism with a distorted version of Islam and Jihadi propaganda feeding into the propaganda of the far right. This is a very worrying trend."
Measures taken by the EU to combat the Jihadi threat, he said, included the EU-wide 'Radicalization Awareness Network', involving some 2,000 organizations. Efforts had also been taken to crack down on the financing of groups like IS, the means by which foreign fighters can move freely from one country to another and to remove "illegal and extremist" content from the internet, a favourite recruiting tool of extremists.
He cautioned that issues of national security remain the competence of member states, but added: "That, of course, is not to say that the Commission wishes to wash its hands of the problem and that is why we are working on different fronts."
In a question and answer session, the panel was asked about the value of seeking to negotiate with IS to which Norell replied with a question himself: "What is the point? What would we talk about? To negotiate with them would be to give them a certain legitimacy. Is that what we want?"
Other members of the 100-strong audience commented that Islam has nothing to do with what ISIS practices; it is the pernicious Saudi Wahabbism doctrine and Iranian Shia extremism that have been exported overseas and that are the source of all the terrorism we are seeing. Norell replied that it has everything to do with Islam as all the violence is perpetrated in the name of Islam and it is not just Wahhabi doctrines that inspire it - the ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood is as much to blame. We should work with partners like moderate Muslim countries like Morocco, he said, who are pushing back on the theological front as well as on the security side.
White House says Ukraine has long aspired to join NATO
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said on Tuesday (6 April) that Ukraine has long aspired to join NATO as a member and that the Biden administration has been discussing that aspiration with the country, write Trevor Hunnicutt and Nandita Bose in Washington.
“We are strong supporters of them, we are engaged with them… but that is a decision for NATO to make,” Psaki said.
President Volodymyr Zelenskiy called on NATO on Tuesday to lay out a path for Ukraine to join the alliance, after Russia has massed troops near the conflict-hit Donbass region.
Coronavirus: More online risks for children and more digital skills for parents to mitigate them
Children learning remotely report that they face negative online content, such as cyberbullying or exposure to inappropriate material, more often than before the pandemic, according to a Joint Research Centre (JRC) report, part of the ‘Kids' Digital lives in COVID-19 Times (KiDiCoTi)' project. The research is conducted by the JRC and supported by 26 research centres in 15 countries across Europe. Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth, Commissioner Mariya Gabriel, said: “The safety of our children – online and offline – is a priority and a source of concern for us all. The study carried out by the Joint Research Centre helps us to understand better the risks posed to children online and to find improved ways to protect them. These factual findings are invaluable to our science-based policymaking, contributing to tackling issues with the appropriate solutions.”
Some 21% of pupils experienced some sort of cyberbullying more often during the first lockdown in spring 2020; 28% reported having seen an increase in the same period of hate messages related to people of different race, religion, nationality or sexuality, while 29% had their personal data used online in a way they did not like. Active parental mediation, associated with the ‘scaffolding' approach (where parents try to enable children to learn strategies to cope with digital risks by explanation and using the internet together), became much more popular overall; whereas gatekeeping tactics, such blocking of content, or keeping track of visited websites or apps, were employed more frequently during the lockdown. The insights from KiDiCoTi fed into the new EU Strategy on the Rights of the Child adopted on 24 March.
Commission Statement: European Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Terrorism
On the occasion of the 17th European Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Terrorism (11 March), the Commission issued the following statement: “Today, we come together to listen, to support survivors, and above all to honour all victims of terrorism. To all who seek to hurt and divide us, we will continue to respond with unity. Our democracies will always strive to protect our fundamental rights, freedoms, and values. We are committed to building inclusive and cohesive societies in which everyone has a stake and everyone can feel safe.
"It is our common responsibility to continue supporting victims and their loved ones. Because of the nature of this crime, victims of terrorism require tailored support and special protection. This is one of the objectives of the newly launched EU Strategy on Victims' Rights.
"We are building up the European Union's resilience to prevent these attacks in the first place. We are fighting the terrorist threat, which increasingly results from different forms of extremism and is increasingly digital. We are taking steps to block online terrorist propaganda, to stop terrorists from spreading hatred online. But no one can fight crime without taking care of its victims.
"On this day of remembrance, we stand united and in solidarity with all the victims and survivors of these acts.”
The European Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Terrorism is an annual event to commemorate the victims of terrorism worldwide. On this day in 2004, the Madrid bombings took place claiming the lives of 193 people and injuring thousands more.
Providing support to victims of crime, including victims of terrorist attacks, is an important part of the Commission's work to address all dimensions of the terrorist threat. The EU has put in place a strong legal framework to protect victims across Europe through the EU-wide compensation scheme, the Victims' Rights Directive and the Directive on Combating Terrorism. In January 2020, the EU Centre of Expertise for Victims of Terrorism set up by the Commission launched its activities aiming mainly to provide support to Mem ber States to assist victims after a terrorist attack. The Centre also published the EU Handbook on Victims of Terrorism. The von der Leyen Commission adopted the first-ever EU Strategy on victims' rights (2020- 2025).
The main objective of this strategy is to ensure that all victims of crime, no matter where in the EU the crime took place, can make a full use of their rights. The Strategy aims to empower victims to report crime, claim compensation and ultimately recover from consequences of crime.
In September 2020, the Commission inaugurated the EU Victims' Rights Platform and appointed its first European Commission co-ordinator for victims' rights.
The Radicalization Awareness Network, through its working group on remembrance of victims of terrorism, presents victims' experiences, contributes to the remembrance of all victims of terrorism, and highlights the human consequences of violent extremism. Victims' rights and support to them are also at the heart of work carried out by the European Network of Associations of Victims of Terrorism, set up by the Commission.
To prevent terrorist offences in the first place, the EU is active in fighting terrorist propaganda – offline and online, denying terrorists the means and the space to plan, finance and carry out attacks, and countering radicalization. In December 2020, the Commission put forward a new Counter-Terrorism Agenda setting out the way forward for actions to counter terrorism at EU level, looking to better anticipate, prevent, protect and respond to terrorist threats. The Counter-Terrorism Agenda is one deliverable of the way forward on internal security, a core component of the Security Union Strategy adopted by the Commission in July 2020.
The European Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Terrorism was established after the Madrid bombings of 11 March 2004. Each year since 2005, the European Union remembers on this date the victims of terrorist atrocities worldwide.
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